In the program for “Solitary Light,” one of the four shows in this year’s Theater: Village Festival, there is a paragraph that describes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred on March 25, 1911 “a few blocks from this theatre,” resulting in the death of 146 garment workers. “Locked in to prevent theft and union discussion many were forced to jump from windows on the ninth floor.”
It is useful to have this in the program because, other than a sign that the cast holds up at one point that says “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory,” it might be difficult for the casual theatergoer to figure out that’s what the show at the Axis Theatre Company is about.
“Solitary Light” is an hour-long musical with no dialogue and no conventional scenes. A cast of nine sings some two dozen songs, mostly in unison; only occasionally can any of the performers be discerned as individual characters.
The songs themselves, by Axis artistic director Randy Sharp and Paul Carbonara (guitarist for 13 years for the band Blondie), are lovely and lilting. They are backed by a pleasing four-piece band of guitar (Carbonara), piano, violin and cello. The staging is atmospheric; David Zeffren’s lighting design is so dark that I wondered for a moment whether it inspired the title of the show. In place of any sets, the cast holds up various handmade signs (“The Park,” The Street,”), which is fine – they suggest a time of ubiquitous picket signs, and in any case Karl Ruckdeschel’s costumes make clear what era we are in.
For a sense that a story is being told, one must listen carefully to the lyrics, which vaguely focus on Frank and Louise, a couple of immigrant factory workers in love, but often broaden into more general glimpses of the times – and are also threaded with some apparent poetic symbolism…about cameras and fireflies and beautiful women. A few songs are put in the mouths of individual characters —
Sew the shirts!
Do the work!
Shut your traps for once!
Much is told about characters:
Working in the factory
She sees the girls just fade away
Until another takes their place
Working every endless day
There is nothing inherently wrong with this impressionistic approach, and it is perhaps my own shortcoming as a theatergoer that I was expecting a clear, conventional drama, with a powerful emotional payoff. I’ll admit to disappointment when, almost at the end of “Solitary Light,” the only presentation of the fire itself was the cast holding up a sign that said “The Fire,” and singing, in another lovely, lilting melody fairly indistinguishable from the ones that came before it:
Solitary light glows
On the window of the 9th floor
On Washington and Greene Street
In New York
Come with me and you’ll see
This dark factory
Lost to time
No matter what they left behind
At the end of the song
At Axis, 1 Sheridan Square
Directed by Randy Sharp
Music and Lyrics by Randy Sharp & Paul Carbonara
Lighting Designer David Zeffren
Choreographer Lynn Mancinelli
Costume Designer Karl Ruckdeschel
Sound Designer Steve Fontaine
Set Construction/Design Chad Yarborough
Cast: Spencer Aste, Shira Averbuch, Mara Beier, Dewey Caddell, George Demas, Emily Kratter, Lynn Mancinelli, Stephanie Regina and Jared Young
Paul Carbonara Guitar
Andy Burton Piano
Hajnal Pivnick Violin
Sam Quiggins Cello
Running time: 60 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $40, $30 students and seniors.
“Solitary Light” is scheduled to run through October 4.