Pyrotechnics are a common metaphor for love, but the sparks that fly in prolific local playwright Lauren Gunderson’s new drama Fire Work are much more literal. The heroine is a young woman who makes fireworks, a trade she learned from her father, in a country where booms in the night are much more likely to be something deadly.
Now being given its world premiere by TheatreFIRST at Berkeley’s Live Oak Theatre, Fire Work is a love story of sorts, but it’s far more likely to chill your blood than warm your heart. That’s because it takes place in an unnamed land of bloody unrest and draconian “new rules” that don’t allow a woman to be seen outside of the company of a male relative—and in fact, not allowed to be seen at all without a garment that completely covers the body and face, except the eyes.
All of these details, of course, are reminiscent of very real places in the world, but Gunderson avoids any hint of exoticism. The characters have Western names and speak in American slang, with all the casual impieties that go along with that. In fact, there’s no reference to religion either. Women are not to be seen because it’s shockingly improper, or simply because they may be killed if other people find out.
Ana (winningly chirpy Rinabeth Apostol) is everything the faceless new regime can’t abide. She’s argumentative and opinionated, and she likes to wear casual, comfortable clothing and dance to classic rock when no one’s watching. And of course she practices a trade handling dangerous materials, which can’t help.
Also not helping is Ben (Aleph Ayin, unnervingly intense but charmingly awkward), a difficult client who veers suddenly from yelling at Ana for her unorthodox behavior to mooning over her like a giddy schoolboy. But as her gently chiding father warns her, the love Ben offers her is more burden than gift, and it’s a burden she can ill afford when the wrong move could easily get her killed or worse.
Ana’s relationship with her dad is really the heart of the story. Brian Herndon radiates warmth and affection as the father, which Apostol’s Ana returns in her playfully fiery way. Insofar as this play is a love story, it’s the deepness of that family connection that burns the brightest.
Director Mina Morita deftly juggles the aching tenderness and the nail-biting anxiety of the piece in her staging. Martin Flynn’s stark set of corrugated metal walls hints at the severity of the environment before the action even begins. The projections by Erik Scanlon seem at first to be awkwardly incorporated into the production, because an opening bit with father and daughter handling flame like wizards doesn’t come off very well. But these visuals soon become indispensable, as the air fills with charming text messages or pyrotechnic displays, and a beautifully moving moment at the end wouldn’t work without them at all.
Gunderson’s trademark quirky banter proves effective in making the characters immediately likeable and relatable. It also provides an increasingly vital layer of levity. As the play builds and the stakes deepen, the stifling atmosphere becomes more and more intense, and more and more tense. And while it would be nice and neat and sweet to say that love conquers all, sometimes you just don’t have the luxury of that kind of sentiment. Recognizing that is what makes Gunderson’s play far more resonant than your average love story.
Fire Work runs through October 19, 2014 at Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit theatrefirst.com.
All photos by Adam Tolbert.