By Austin Kaiser
Eliza Martin’s “O” begins with a young woman dancing and throwing flowers in the air. Suddenly a voice over the loudspeaker says, “We have to make adjustments. Take five.” The young woman takes off her blonde wig and introduces herself. She is Leigh, an actress playing Ophelia. She often has to wait for her director to make changes, so in the meantime she likes to knit. She is working on a quilt.
Leigh explains there is a ladder actresses must climb as they age: ingénue, lover, mother, and then Queen. As an ingénue, an actress has to be careful about scenes in the rain, or ones in which she is submerged in water. Sometimes there are see‑through issues depending on the dress. Leigh wears nude underwear on these occasions.
Each role has its tricks and, if the actress forgets them, she can remember them by considering the role’s relationship with the male characters. Queens must know how to wear jewels, and Evil Queens must know how to cackle. Lovers must know how to die. At first, Leigh was excited about this career trajectory. It seemed historic and full of legacy. Who doesn’t want to be Queen one day? But eventually the limitations of these archetypes dawned on her. The roles available to women suddenly seemed unimaginative.
She addresses the director and makes a suggestion: what if Ophelia tears up the book she is reading? The director shoots down Leigh’s idea, and says she is wasting his time. She apologizes. He condescendingly dismisses her. This conversation felt real and was uncomfortable to witness.
Leigh tells us that actresses need three skills: loving, crying, and dying. She demonstrates. For loving, there are many expressions. One is the “I’m falling in love” face. Leigh tilts her head at the audience, blinks once slowly, inhales, blinks again, sighs, and pauses. Leigh performs several feats of acting while explaining how she is doing it. This is the gold that “O” delivers early and often.
The most astonishing matrix‑breaking fake‑out was when Leigh remembered an Ikea commercial from the early 2000s. A lamp is unplugged. Its owner carries the lamp downstairs and puts it on the curb. As rain falls, the lamp turns its head to the window behind which it used to sit, and sees a brand new lamp shining in its place. When Leigh reaches the dramatic climax of this commercial, she cries. Her face puffs red. She sheds a real tear, which falls onto the floor. “And that’s how you do it.” she says. Leigh has already proved herself to have mastered timing and delivery. Now she displays the imagination and mental control to deliver an ocean of tears to a fourth‑story New York theater half a mile inland.
Leigh muses about the state of female roles in theatre, and what can be done. She believes women must acknowledge the weakness of their acting roles. They must then commit to writing their own stories with complex and meaningful, challenging and inspiring characters. Leigh delivers this speech loudly, tearing up and clenching her jaw. She directs her imaginary troops to dip pens in ink and aim them at the glorious walls of white paper. Then the director says, “Okay. We’re ready. Places.” Leigh puts on her blonde wig and resumes dancing and throwing flowers. The play ends.
Absolutely brilliant. Leigh, as portrayed by Ms. Martin, schools us on her world, and then slips back into it. This production is a triumph of writing and acting, of recognizing a trend in society and art, and condensing it into a play. Leigh shares her humor, talents, and philosophical observations. We learned about the business of acting, the art of acting, and acting the state of pursuing your goals.
Written and Performed by Eliza Martin
Nov. 4 at 6pm
Director: Rebecca Ballarin
Lighting Design: Steph Raposo
Sound Design: Nick Potter
Stage Manager: Lucy McPhee
Show Image by Neil Silcox, courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
AUSTIN KAISER is a writer with an expertise in art and the creative process. His writing is about improving your imagination and exercising your empathy muscle. Kaiser is currently writing a book called, “100 Questions Every Artist Should Have The Answers To.” His other book, “How To Go Viral & Put Wings On Ideas: A Book For Content Creators & Young Artists,” explains how ideas travel and which ideas travel best. More at www.medium.com/@KaiserMane.