Yesterday Again (Napa)
Yesterday Again, playwright Dezi Gallegos’ latest composition, does something all too rare in modern theatre. In a world of ever decreasing attention spans, it demands you pay attention. It demands you think. That shouldn’t be surprising once you realize the starting point of Gallegos’ piece is Einstein’s premise that the past, present and future all exist simultaneously. Gallegos then weaves that premise into a fascinating but occasionally frustrating drama.
Yesterday Again is a look at the lives of two friends and how the decisions they made as youths follow and even haunt them and those around them for the rest of their lives. We first meet Bella and Eric as middle schoolers, then college students, then adults. The friendship unravels while they’re youngsters, and we see the impact of the decisions leading to that break through the later stages of their lives. Scenes constantly shift between the time periods, culminating in an ending that is, in essence, the beginning.
Sound challenging? Well, if you think it sounds challenging for an audience, imagine how it was for the artists tasked with bringing Gallegos’ work to life. First among the challenges faced by director Sheri Lee Miller in grappling with the piece’s complexities was having to direct three sets of lead performers (among a cast of fourteen) and deal with three actors’ takes on the same character, albeit at different stages of life. Physical similarities among the actors playing Bella (Lucy London, Olivia Marie Rooney, Sharia Pierce) no doubt aided the audience’s ability to follow their character through the different periods. No such similarities existed among the actors playing Eric (Jack Wolff, Isaac Jay, Craig A. Miller), leaving it up to the director and actors to find ways of connecting the three performances to one character. I got it, but it was clear to me that many in attendance were somewhat confused based on the number of conversations I overhead at intermission from audience members trying to decipher just who was who on stage.
Another of Miller’s directing challenges, the simultaneous running of scenes, led to my own confusion. The delivery of Gallegos’ naturalistic (yet often quite poetic) dialogue drew me in so completely in one scene that I completely missed what was happening on the other side of the stage, and THAT scene had an incredibly important bit of plot development in it. A post-show discussion led to the discovery that I had significantly misinterpreted what I had thought happened in that scene and that I was not alone in missing the action. It’s a case of theatrical style trumping substance, and for as many stylistic choices that worked (synchronizing dialogue to bridge transitions, repeating and reemphasizing dialogue between periods, etc.) the use of simultaneous action didn’t. Whether it was the specific blocking utilized, the limitations of the space, or the playwright’s specific intention, anything that takes away from the substance of Gallegos’ writing should be rethought.
The third major challenge for Miller was the direction of young performers in potentially uncomfortable situations. I have been deliberately sparse in my recapping of the plot because the scarcity of original work produced around these parts leads me to want to leave as much of the discovery process intact for the audience. If I were to apply the TV Content labels, I’d say it earns a TV-14, for suggestive dialogue (D), coarse language (L), sexual situations (S), and violence (V). Miller was obviously sensitive to this when it came to her younger actors, who acquit themselves nicely, but it led to some odd blocking and a jolt from the world of the play. Older actors who could “play” younger or alternative blocking might have better served the play.
Miller navigated the cast through these intricacies, and the ensemble does the script justice. The strength of the performances usually (but not always) was in direct correlation to the actor’s level of experience. Among the veterans, Craig A. Miller as the adult Eric excellently encapsulates the totality of Eric’s life decisions, as does Sharia Pierce as the adult Bella and hers. Barry Martin and Pam Koppel are strong as Bella’s domineering parents, but the roles border on the clichéd and felt underwritten. John Browning is effective in an atypical role as adult Bella’s problematic husband.
Amongst the younger crowd, the standout was newcomer Isaac Jay as the adolescent Eric. One might think it would be easier to play a character close to one’s age, but Gallegos has written a role far more complex than your typical college freshman. Solid work was also done by Olivia Marie Rooney as the adolescent Bella. Andy Templeton as her “best gay friend” Jasper is gifted with some of the script’s best dialogue and his heartfelt conversations with Bella were quite poignant.
Gallegos has shown significant growth as a writer since his last play (Hamlet’s Orphans.) While I admired that piece very much, I found the writing occasionally stilted and too “presentational”. I recognized then his talent for producing naturalistic dialogue and characters rooted in realism, and I continue to recognize that in this piece.
Which brings me back to my concerns about style over substance. Gallegos is current enrolled at USC where he is pursuing a BFA in Film and Television Production. This might explain why I see a lot of cinematic influences on Yesterday Again. I see hints of Robert Altman’s use of overlapping dialogue, Brian DePalma’s use of the “split screen”, Quentin Tarantino’s time shifts, M. Night Shyamalan’s twist endings and (most frustratingly) Christopher Nolan’s concluding mind-fucks all at play here. Some of those stylistic choices worked, some of them didn’t, which disappointed me in that there is a shitload of substance here that might get lost among all the “technique.”
How you tell the story is important, but not as important as the story itself. I felt that there were moments where the style of telling Gallegos’ story got in the way and occasionally overwhelmed it. If an audience leaves confused or frustrated, or the main topic of a post-show discussion is the ending, then you run the risk of the power of the entire play being reduced to a few elements and of losing the meaning and impact of everything before that ending.
And that would be a shame, because Yesterday Again is an incredibly powerful piece of theatre. As gloriously flawed and as artistically invigorating as one might expect and/or hope from a talented young playwright, it revels in its lighter moments as much as it does in its more plentiful darker ones. Hamlet’s Orphans proved Gallegos could write for characters of his generation. With this piece, Gallegos proves he has the ability to write for characters beyond his generation. Whether Gallegos is on an artist’s journey akin to Icarus’ to the sun or New Horizons’ to Pluto remains to be seen, but I’m honored to join him and the local theatrical community for the ride.
If you’re looking for light, pleasing summer entertainment, you couldn’t get further from it than Yesterday Again. If you’re looking for something original, something challenging, something aspiring (yet occasionally infuriating), something that sets its sights high and is willing to take most of the inherent risks of that, something not designed for you to just sit back and watch and check your brain at the door, then seek out this show.
The rewards are plentiful.
August 7 through August 16
Fri & Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 2pm
Lucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Photos by Eric Chazankin