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Reality, fantasy colorfully illustrated in 'Technicolor Life' at Rep Stage

Heather Lynn Peacock, Isa Guitian and Shea-Mikal Green, with Thony Mena and Shayna Blass in a scene combining fantasy and realty in "Technicolor Life" at Rep Stage.
Heather Lynn Peacock, Isa Guitian and Shea-Mikal Green, with Thony Mena and Shayna Blass in a scene combining fantasy and realty in "Technicolor Life" at Rep Stage. (Rep Stage)

Rep Stage is really doing its part for the Women's Voices Theater Festival, which involves more than 50 Washington area theaters producing world premieres by female playwrights this fall. Indeed, Rep Stage's entire season involves works by female playwrights.

The current Rep Stage production, Jami Brandli's "Technicolor Life," is a dramatically colorful illustration of relevant issues. Its protagonist is a 14-year-old girl whose passage further into her teen years would be sufficient material for such a festival selection.

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A second issue that the play tackles is sexual abuse in the military, because the protagonist's older sister is a wounded veteran of the Iraq war whose injuries are as much psychological as physical. And a third major issue is that the protagonist's grandmother is so ill that she's considering assisted suicide.

Although the playwright develops a story in which those three issues and related concerns are effectively interwoven, it's a lot to incorporate and consequently the play is lengthy and somewhat unwieldy. Moreover, the tone deliberately incorporates a blend of straightforward realism and Hollywood movie-inflected magic realism.

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"Technicolor Life" is emotionally persuasive in part because of the seriousness of its subject matter and in part because the Rep Stage production directed by Joseph W. Ritsch has a cast that's so fully engaged with bringing these issues to life.

The teen protagonist, Maxine Hunter, is vividly embodied by Isa Guitan. This actor's spirited performance is beautifully showcased in scenes in which a tight spotlight fixes on her earnest face as she delivers monologues about her family situation.

Guitan's first-rate performance is matched by Shayna Blass as Maxine's soldier sister, Willamena "Billie" Hunter. Blass conveys Billie's anger with visceral force.

That's why the play's crucial conversations between the innocent and eager Maxine and the experienced and bitter Billie provide the dramatic substance that anchors the play.

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There are uniformly fine performances by Grace Bauer as the girls' mother, Susan Black, and Valerie Lash as the girls' grandmother, Francine "Franny" Black. Capable performances come from Thony Mena and James Whalen in multiple male supporting roles.

And then there are the fantasy figures played by Shea-Mikal Green and Heather Lynn Peacock. Their multiple female roles include portraying movie stars Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Specifically, they're fantastic projections relating to one of the grandmother's favorite movies, the 1953 musical "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

As Maxine searches for female role models and overall guidance, her real-life conversations are accompanied by fantasized conversations in which these voluptuous movie icons give her diamonds-are-a-girl's-best-friend-type advice.

It's a visually and thematically engaging plot device that recalls how the Argentine writer Manuel Puig likewise combined bracing realism and movie-inspired magic realism in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and other novels. Brandli seems a bit tentative with the insertion of such fantasy elements in "Technicolor Life" and could have more gaudy fun with them.

If all this is a lot for any one play to take on, the Rep Stage production benefits from its solid cast and also from a set design by Daniel Ettinger in which a predominantly monochromatic gray palette truly makes the movie stars' red gowns assert themselves.

A domestic wall placed midway back on the stage actually is a scrim that powerfully enables the director to place domestic scenes in the foreground and dreamier scenes in the background. The dreamier scenes include flashbacks to Iraq and also some movie star-related scenes.

A central turntable facilitates moving around the props, people and action in a play that is busy moving between present and past, and also between reality and fantasy.

Not surprisingly for a brand-new play, "Technicolor Life" tends to have that turntable thematically turn more often than it needs to. Thematic points are established and then reiterated with dialogue that is often emphatic when something more subtle would resonate more strongly.

What ultimately matters, though, is that this play brings important issues to life for Maxine and also for us.

Rep Stage's "Technicolor Life" runs through Nov. 8 in Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Call 443-518-1500 or go to repstage.orghttp://www.repstage.org.

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