“Hit Your Mark, Die Beautiful” lured me in because it was being promoted as a “Waiting for Guffman” for Off Off Broadway, which I took to mean a comic but affectionate look at how bad New York indie theater can be.
The six characters are theater people involved in the final tech rehearsal before opening night of a new play (never named) that one of them, Rich (Nick Thomas) says is “really, really bad,” the kind of awful play in which the members of the cast “don’t want to be where they are,” he says, and where the members of the audience “have to…endure it until it’s over.” It’s the kind of play that’s nearly two hours long without an intermission, in which a character might sleep on a cot on the stage for most of that time, and a trio of performers suddenly and inexplicably use hammers to smash a huge red cross, then strew bouquets of daisies amid the wreckage.
There’s something bold or reckless about the premise of “Hit Your Mark. Die Beautiful,” a new play written by Peter Oliver that itself has a running time of nearly two hours without an intermission. Those bits with the sleeping actor (played by Oliver himself) and the smashed cross are from Oliver’s play itself, not meant as excerpts of the play within the play. “Hit Your Mark. Die Beautiful” — which is being presented by the adventurous six-year-old company spit & vigor at New Ohio Theater through October 24 — struck me as much less a spoof of the worst of Off-Off Broadway than an example of it.
But that is the overall effect, exacerbated by the slow pace (presumably meant to be realistic) established by director Sara Fellini. (I would have loved some more vigor.) If the play as a whole captures way too accurately the tedium of tech day, individual moments and monologues reflect a savvy insider knowledge of New York theater that feels reminiscent of “10 out of 12,” Anne Washburn’s 2015 backstage play based on notes she’d been taking at tech rehearsals over the previous decade.
There are only a few moments that explicitly address how theater artists deal with a show that isn’t going well. “A stage manager can’t really make the play better, but I can for sure make it worse,” Juliana (Morgan Zipf-Meister) says at one point. “So I just have to do my job.”
More often, an exchange here and there suggests the general approach of theater artists committed to experimenting. At one point, the director Atom (Laura Sisskin) asks the lead actor Skip (Oliver) whether people will understand the meaning of a particular lighting effect. “It’s an abstract way of expressing an abstract concept,” Skip replies. “I think people will get it.” (It took me a beat before I found this funny.)
Woven around the scenes involving the rehearsal – the lighting, the blocking, actors reciting/practicing random lines – is some familiar theater artist side chatter: Cass (Kyra Jackson) talks enviously with the director of a former classmate who’s gotten a movie role, and tells an extended story to the stage manager of how she fantasized being famous and being treated like royalty on a talk show as a way of surviving an especially boring assignment from her day job, which involved traveling to a warehouse in Maspeth to pick up a hand exerciser her boss had ordered online, because he was too impatient to wait a day for it to be delivered.
Two monologues stood out for me.
The first was the one by Rich in which he talks about the awfulness of the play they’re in, at some length –and yes, I found some humor here (if in few other places), because what he’s saying so convincingly comports with the reality of indie theater. “Ninety five percent of the audience at a show like this is connected to the cast or crew in some way. So they didn’t really choose to be there.” Rich expresses sympathy for Skip, who’s starring in the play. “He’s lost because he’s looking for something that isn’t there: M-e-a-n-i-n-g.” But, in a surreal touch, Rich also tells us he was assaulted on his way to rehearsal (his face is bruised, and his shirt bloodied), and as a result “Actually, I die tomorrow.” (This last bit, which isn’t developed much after the monologue, is something I didn’t try very hard to try to figure out, having just been warned against looking for m-e-a-n-i-n-g.)
The other monologue is by Annie (Giselle Elise), who tells the charming story of auditioning for Martha Graham the day after she moved to New York City. She also confesses that she lied to the company about needing to take the day off to attend her granddaughter’s dance recital. The recital was actually months earlier. “Look, I’m old, okay? And I know what the tech day on a show like this is like…. I know it may sound easy, just going between standing there for a few minutes while the lights shine on ya and sitting back down, but it’s truly exhausting. Mentally. Not to mention, for me, a cold, dry theater, paint smells, those hard folding chairs, just being in an environment like that for several hours really isn’t good for me at this age.”
Annie too gets killed – but just the character she’s portraying in the play-within-the-play. Right before rehearsing that scene (the only scene we glimpse from that imaginary awful play), she says to her scene partner: “Let me down easy, Skip. I want to die beautiful.”
Hit Your Mark, Die Beautiful
spit & vigor at New Ohio Theater through October 24, 2021
running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission
Written by Peter Oliver
Directed by Sara Fellini
lighting design by Erin MacDevitt, prop and scenic design by Florence Scagliarini
Cast: Peter Oliver as Skip, Laura Sisskin as Atom, Morgan Zipf-Meister as Juliana, Kyra Jackson as Cass, Nick Thomas as Rich, Giselle Elise as Annie.
Photo by Nick Thomas of Giselle Elise as Annie