SPT New Play Incubator Series captures honest emotion via beautiful language in ‘Conjure’

Conjure: A Cycle in Three Parts

CSPS Legion Arts — Friday and Saturday, Aug. 11-12 at 8 p.m.

The cast of “Honey Song,” the first of three linked segments in ‘Conjure.’ — photo by Struttmann Photo

At the beginning and end of Conjure, written by area poet and playwright Jennifer Rouse, the all-female cast joins hands and forms a circle, their faces turned inward toward one another. It’s a ceremonial act, and it signals and exemplifies the palpable bond linking these performers/characters. It also exemplifies the challenges the work poses to the audience. Though the play is performed in the versatile and intimate primary space upstairs at CSPS, the audience is never quite invited into the metaphorical circle the characters inhabit.

The workshop production of Conjure, which will be performed Friday, Aug. 11 and Saturday, Aug. 12, is the latest iteration of a work that has been developing for some time. The first and third portions of Conjure were part of Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Underground New Play Festival in 2014 and 2015. Last fall, a reading of the script was performed at CSPS as part of SPT Theatre’s New Play Incubator Series. This fully staged production, under the direction of Janeve West, is also part of that series.

A day before I saw the final dress rehearsal, I sat down over coffee with Rouse. She describes herself as “a hardcore confessional poet” who lays her “heart at your feet.”

That desire to present honest emotion via beautiful language is certainly on display in Conjure. Rouse employs heightened language leavened with some coarser turns of phrase to reveal the longing and desperation of her characters.

Jane Pini looks on as the titular Three Fridas (L-R: Claire Winkleblack, Olivia Villela Lestrud, and Mayte Gomez-Cruz) tend to Zi (Tierra Plowden, reclining). — photo by Struttmann Photo

Those emotions play out in three linked passages: “Honey Song,” in which a worker bee pours out her love for the embattled queen; “The Three Fridas,” in which an overwrought artist is visited by three incarnations of Frida Kahlo; and “Hummingbird Girl,” in which a patient subjected to cruel attempts to cure her mental illness is visited by the ghosts of suffering women — and a saint — who offer her a kind of consolation.

“My characters are stubborn,” Rouse told me. “They don’t necessarily want to hear there’s help.”

Nevertheless, the notion that help and connection are available is a theme of the show. “If you struggle,” Rouse said, “there will be people who reach back for you if you’re willing to accept it.”

That notion might be applied to the creation of the play itself. Rouse is quick to credit West and SPT’s Jane Pini with providing the support and inspiration she needs. “They push me. They teach me,” she said. “None of this happens unless you’re willing to be a lifelong learner.”

Rouse and West have forged a strong partnership and are committed to the creation and presentation of feminist and queer theater featuring diverse casts. They worked hard, for example, to cast Latina actresses as the Fridas (though one original cast member had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts). The diversity of the cast is evident the moment the lights go up — and is a powerful component of the production.

“Anybody who doesn’t see themselves on the stage right now, this is the play” Rouse told me. “This is the time.”

There were several standout performances at final dress. Joy Mincey Powell captures the imperiousness of the queen bee in “Honey Song,” while also revealing her fears and fragility. Claire Winkleblack transmits her desperation as the worker bee who loves the queen and then returns as Thorn Frida to share a moving moment of companionship with Tierra Plowden as Zi, an artist who has lost her muse. Mayte Gomez-Cruz is cruel, sly and delightful as Anatomy Frida. Noel VanDenBosch shows impressive dynamic range even as she is confined to a chair as Hummingbird Girl. Kaamilya William closes the show with a beautifully delivered passage that sums up the plays’ themes in an epilogue.

Kathryn Bowrey Huang (masked) and Noel VanDenBosch in the “Hummingbird Girl” segment of ‘Conjure.’ — photo by Struttmann Photo

The players are supported by Matt Zhorne’s video production, which blends Kahlo’s and Rouse’s art and serves as a marker between scenes. Ideally, these videos would be projected from the back so as to not cast images onto the performers and to maintain the integrity of each image. But this is a quibble given the stripped down nature of this production. Bri Atwood’s sound design, Richard Barker’s barebones scenic design and Karen Mills’ lighting design serve the production well, by and large.

Rouse credits West with crafting the subtle connections between the three sections of Conjure. “It’s enough to make you feel like these three distinct pieces can’t live without each other,” she said.

Those connections help give the play a coherent shape. Still, much that happens is mysterious and unclear — perhaps by design in many cases, but occasionally because the audience is unlikely to have all the context necessary to understand various passages. To cite one example: A solid knowledge of Frida Kahlo’s biography would help audience members unpack “The Three Fridas.” Perhaps the program and the screen could be employed to offer more context in future productions.

That said, Rouse didn’t set out to write a straightforward narrative that wraps up neatly at the end.

“I can’t tell you that you’re always going to walk away from one of my plays feeling like it’s resolved.”

That’s fair enough. And Conjure is certainly intriguing from beginning to end. But extending an invitation into the play’s circle to those sitting the audience would serve the play and its performers well.

Conjure runs Aug. 11-12 at CSPS Legion Arts Hall in Cedar Rapids. Tickets are $12-15.

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