Broken Hearts Abound in Ghostlight Triple Feature
Amherst’s newest theater group, Ghostlight, premiered their “Triple Feature” this week. Managing Arts and Living Editor Alex Brandfonbrener ’23 discusses the trio of student productions, which each featured original scripts and casts.
The Ghostlight Triple Feature hit the stage from Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, the first production from Ghostlight, the college’s new theater group. The event consisted of three plays, each written by an Amherst student, with each featuring their own cast.
At the outset, I was uncertain — three plays is a lot! But after attending their final dress rehearsal, I was drawn into the captivating worlds created by Luke Herzog ’24, Bianca Sass ’23, and Petra Brusiloff ’24.
Herzog’s “Pulling the Switch” opened the show with a story about two prisoners working in a prison kitchen, cooking the final meals for people on death row. Shawn (Sterling Kee ’23) is a doctor turned prison cook, struggling with the guilt of (maybe) killing a young patient that resembled the “Morton Salt Girl,” wearing a yellow rain jacket with an umbrella. On the other hand, Cory (Matt Vitelli ’24) is a former “hustler” who is gleefully unafraid to put his moral compass to the side. The characters are foils for each other, balancing Kee’s earnest but morose acting with Vitelli’s sharp wit and comedic tendencies. Their dynamic created moments of simultaneous tension and humor, including an explosively entertaining stage fight scene that culminated in tears and Morton salt containers everywhere.
Likewise, Herzog’s clever script juxtaposes layer upon layer of humorous detail within the morbid premise. I was drawn to the numerous gags, all grounded in the unusual setting of the play: the outlandish final meals Shawn has cooked in the past, a well-timed toaster, and a death row kitchen suggestion box. I chuckled and chuckled again as Shawn and Cory cooked for an inmate with an unorthodox final meal request: a PB&J. When they realize that their diner has a peanut allergy, they scramble to replace it with an AB&J: almond-butter-and-jelly sandwich!
Despite the lighthearted moments, the play leans into discussions about justice and what to do when it fails. But instead of offering moral certainty, the play revels in asking these questions again and again. It starts with the mysterious death row inmate: What did he do to receive the death penalty? Why did he choose a PB&J as his final meal? The play slowly turned the focus of these questions from the mystery man to the two main characters. What did Shawn and Cory do to end up in prison? What would they request for their final meals? And as the play came to a close, I found myself asking those questions about myself: Why might I end up on death row, and what would I choose as my last supper?
After having adjusted to the comedic peculiarities of prison life in “Pulling the Switch,” I was both comforted and unsettled entering the awkward high school setting of Sass’s “Blackout.” The play follows two high school students grappling with an unspoken romance. Alex (Eva Tsitohay ’24) is the lighting technician for a school play, eagerly waiting for her chronically absent boyfriend to arrive. George (PJ Smith ’24) interrupts her rumination by asking if he can join her in the isolated lighting booth so that he can write an article about the show for the student newspaper.
Sass plays with the meta quality of the premise, as Alex and George argue about the turbulent plot of the school play, all while confronting their own loves. The characters sat facing the audience, referring to the unfolding events of the school play’s romance with only the audience in front of them. There is no way to watch theater without being watched, too.
It’s worth noting that I was personally drawn to the meta quality of the premise: There I was, me, Alex, writing a review of a play about the character Alex watching someone write a review of a play! It struck very close to home.
Though the stage was bare — one table, two chairs, all bathed in a soft orange light — Tsitohay and Smith’s compelling, well-rehearsed, and flexible acting was more than enough to immerse me in their story. Tsitohay used expressive faces to color Alex’s defensiveness with glimpses of longing and inevitable pain. It was as if only a thin veneer were covering her honest feelings. Likewise, Smith showed George painting over insecurity with nonchalance, balancing frustrated and lighthearted emotions. His delivery was well-articulated and completely believable.
Though Smith was comfortable on stage, his character was not. In an awkward, resentful, and intimate depiction of romance, Alex and George stand up to each other, not accepting the apparent truths of simple claims. They play off of each other’s rhythms, such that we were not always in on their jokes. And when the finale of the show left their situation unresolved, I felt for their loss. As such, “Blackout” is a painful and relatable reconciliation: Who hasn’t had their heart broken?
Brusiloff’s “Processing…” began with four chairs on stage. Four girls come in, and they decide to play Monopoly — the online version, not the board game. Each sits in a chair, holding a controller. This single image then unfolds, unwinds, and breaks apart. The four girls each take a name from the Monopoly tokens — Top Hat, Battleship, Dog, and Thimble — and work through the tragic death of their favorite (or maybe not?) senior year teacher.
Just like Herzog’s “Pulling the Switch,” the play juxtaposes humor with loss. The four cannot decide what to feel about “the elephant in the room.” Battleship (played by Brusiloff herself) was closest to him, and perhaps more in denial than the other three. At times she is checked out, and in other moments, she bristles with anger at the other girls; she only wants to play Monopoly. Top Hat (Sarah Quiros ’24) has been Battleship’s best friend since kindergarten. She serves as a formal and honest mediator for the four. But when her wounds are exposed, she lets her stubborn side bubble to the surface. Thimble (Rachel Zhu ’24) is distant from their concerns with her humor and strong will. But she resents the “elephant,” and is quick to close herself off. Dog (Snigdha Ranjan ’25) holds them together, despite her sensitive and naive nature. She is the only one who wants to talk about their dead teacher, and kicks off the story.
The girls are not a four-way foil. Instead, they share traits, interacting messily, barely keeping civil at times, and threatening to quit the game without provocation. The four actors presented such different personalities that the play had a seamless, lived-in quality. “Processing…” boasts sections of uninterrupted dialogue, in which lines are rapid-fired in quick succession.
A marathon of sorts, the Ghostlight Triple Feature was three hours of terrific student theater, written, produced, and acted by a host of talented students. While the event was indeed a celebration of their passion for art and performance, I was struck by the sense of loss in the plays. All three stories were haunted by broken hearts; they are timely reminders to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, even in unexpected and unusual circumstances.