As Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 44nd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays continues on, the latest original full-length play premiered this weekend — Susan Soon He Stanton’s “we, the invisibles.”
Its central story of sexual assault certainly is very much of the #MeToo moment, but it goes beyond a single instance of abuse to present a more layered, interesting and ultimately emotionally engaging look at power dynamics and the abuse of power.
It does this while being human and charming, and also manages to be a love letter to immigrants and people working in the service industry.
When Susan (Rinabeth Apostol) first steps into the light speaking directly to the audience, she establishes that she is the onstage stand-in for Stanton. She also explains that this is a play that is, to some extent, about a playwright, built from a collection of memories and recorded interviews gathered during her time working in a fancy New York hotel.
This is blended with her obsession with the real life story of the immigrant hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo’s alleged assault at the hands of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Susan’s narration is a mix of info dumps about Diallo’s case, as well as glimpses into the back stories of other characters with whom she is sharing the stage. The narration allows Stanton to move people and events through the action of the play at an Olympian pace.
There are moments when the speed feels like it’s too much — characters come and go so fast that we don’t get emotionally satisfying ends to their arcs. But that’s just the point. In the service industry, human dignity is a commodity. Anyone who’s done that work will recognize the truth of those moments
Backing up Apostol is a hardworking ensemble of six. They bring to life dozens of really memorable characters, and another couple dozen less memorable characters. Though there were moments when I had difficulty figuring out who was who, they were few and far between.
It’s a hell of a thing and clearly speaks wonders of the craft and technique of each member of the ensemble, as well as the skills of Stanton and director Dámaso Rodríguez. That so many characters are immigrants with heavy accents demands an extra shout out to whomever did the speech and dialect coaching.
The setting is used to unlock the themes of uneven power dynamics in every nook and cranny of the action.
First and foremost, the bottom-rung hotel employees are abused by pretty much every member of the public. Treated as vending machines, robots and sex objects, they are stripped of their humanity in ways they can’t really control.
The hotel employees frequently play out their own power dynamics, taking advantage of each other in ways small and large, which avoids a simplistic poor vs. rich duality. The final power dynamic explored in the play is a clever device sometimes played for humor, but more often delivers a kick to the gut.
The hotel employees being interviewed know they will eventually become Susan’s characters. They rely on her to tell their stories in a world that silences the less privileged. At points, the characters break the fourth wall and accuse Susan of not doing justice to the real people they are representing.
With all this action — and all these characters — there are moments when the pace drags, especially in the first act. Individually all the moments are enjoyable, but it’s hard to believe there aren’t a couple of scenes in there, or maybe even a character or two, that could go away without detracting from the themes or the strength of the many theatrical devices at play.
There also is a good period of time that it feels like all the individual moments aren’t adding up to anything. That sort of slice-of-life piece can be wonderful, but it’s really easy to screw up.
Then, out of nowhere in the back half of the second act, the pieces all coalesce into a really satisfying and cathartic ending.
The show certainly owes its successes to a great script, strong direction and a wonderful ensemble. But the performance of Apostol as Susan can’t go unmentioned. A strong presence throughout, she nails the climactic moment, an expansive and difficult monologue that charts a huge emotional terrain.
The climax also manages to really convey one of the most important concepts in social justice and the #MeToo movement. It shows us the emotional cost of living with constant unaddressed micro-aggressions is real — and devastating.
“we, the invisibles” continues through April 8. Tickets start at $29.
See Insider’s reviews of other Humana Festival plays: