Thursday, May 23, 2024

Theatre Review: Culture and Exploitation Collide in GableStage’s “Fade”

In the Darwinian, cutthroat entertainment industry, all it takes is that sweet smell of success to transform a guppy into a shark. Tanya Saracho’s “Fade,” currently receiving its regional premiere at GableStage, is about one such character’s transition from one of us to one of them, even if it means jettisoning her ethics like so much flotsam from a sinking ship.

The idea of sacrificing one’s morals to get ahead in Hollywood is hardly new. But Saracho’s dark comedy distinguishes itself because of its added cultural dimensions. Lucia (Alexandra Acosta), a creatively stymied novelist with weightier ambitions than a mere TV show, has accepted a “soul-sucking” job on the writing staff of a crime series to help make ends meet.

Lucia is a “diversity hire”—her colleagues were fairly explicit about this—on an otherwise white staff, and every day she’s reminded of her tokenized status in the writer’s room. For days (weeks?), her work largely consists of menial and often demeaning errands: When her boss calls her into his office, it’s not to discuss one of her ideas but to demand that she translate his picayune directions via phone to his Spanish-speaking maid. Saracho worked in TV for a while, and like many of the best moments in “Fade,” this one feels uncomfortably drawn from life experience.

Alex Alvarez and Alexandra Acosta

We don’t see any of these moments play out. Instead, “Fade” is set entirely after-hours, in Lucia’s office at the studio (a handsome, functional space from designer Frank J. Oliva), where she relays the day’s catastrophes—and every day, in her boisterous telling, feels like a catastrophe—with the night janitor, Abel (Alex Alvarez). A mysterious man who doesn’t let strangers in easily, Abel is initially turned off by Lucia’s oversharing. Though she tries to cast them tribally as Latinx people trying to make it together in what she calls “Trump’s America,” Abel is routinely reminded of their own power imbalance in the hierarchy of their careers: she being paid to write, he being paid to clean the floors and take out her trash. Is blood, in essence, thicker than caste? Despite these divisions, Abel and Lucia become friends, even creative collaborators, until the events of “Fade” spool inexorably toward a painful betrayal.

Complete with impactful pauses, nuanced pacing and an increasingly palpable discomfort, director Teo Castellanos guides his actors through the subtle gradations required to sell Saracho’s vision, namely Lucia’s gradual “fade” from bushy-tailed Latina ingénue to ruthless, empty-suited avatar of the white corporate world. The play’s cynicism is genuine, if a bit hammered home, and the performances sell it with complexity and feeling.

Acosta plays Lucia as jumpy, easily set off and wallowing, often, in self-pity. At one point she is clearly directed toward histrionics, her actions compared, by Abel, to those in a telenovela. In less dexterous hands, the character could grate, but Acosta balances Lucia’s rougher edges with an infectious curiosity and smart comedic timing.

Alvarez makes for a fine stoic foil, a wary guardian of Abel’s precious secrets. When Abel’s metaphoric armor begins to fall away, and he allows Lucia access to his traumatic past, the tonal tide in their relationship begins to shift: Alvarez plays Abel as the needy one to Acosta’s more withholding figure.

Could this “Fade” have been a more riveting experience to watch? Perhaps; Saracho’s writing is elliptical to a fault: We see where it’s going so far in advance that it doesn’t offer the sort of surprising twists that keep us off-balance.

Furthermore, the production runs more than 100 minutes and could have benefited from a slight trim. But the show’s extended scene breaks, in which Abel silently goes about his janitorial duties, do feature one of this production’s stealth qualities, a compelling soundscape from sound designer Seth “Brimstone” Schere. We experience what Abel hears through his AirPods, an eclectic selection of music from salsa to hard-bop jazz to punk rock—evidence of a sort of three-dimensional individualism that transcends status and culture.

“Fade” runs through Sept. 18 at GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave. Tickets start at $35. Call 305/445-1119 or gablestage.org.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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