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Jake Horowitz and Malka Wallick in Fire

Jake Horowitz and Malka Wallick in Fire.  Photo by Russ Rowland.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

In New York City history, three infamous words, "Triangle Factory fire," still evoke the disaster that trapped and killed 146 workers, a heinous event that could have been prevented.  It was on March 25, 1911 in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory, where the workers, mostly young women, died on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors because the factory owners had neglected safety features.  The tragedy led to major changes in labor practices, including unionization like the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and government fire codes.       

Debra Whitfield's well-crafted interpretation of the event is presented in Chatillion Stage Company's debut production, Fire, at Theatre 54 at Shetler Studios & Theatres.   Directed by Benjamin Viertel, the drama centers on the lives of several young workers working long hours at the factory for small wages needed to support their families.  Intertwined are records of the actual court testimonies from the trial waged against the sweatshop’s neglectful owners, lending an emotional and socio-political substance to the omnipresent danger.

The play is non-linear and often confusing, shifting forward and back in time, from the kitchen table to the factory sewing machine.  A cast of eight takes on multiple roles of different ethnicities familiar in the sweatshops, all desperate to achieve the better life promised in America.  The players adeptly handle the perfunctory sketches that provide just enough detail to enliven the individual characters.  

Rose (Lauriel Friedman), a young Italian immigrant advocates for a union to protect the workers.  Malka Wallick plays Anna, an Russian Jew who has fallen in love with a young man, played by Jake Horowitz but has a secret preventing her from carrying their relationship further.  

Two personalities by Laura King Otazo stand out as she portrays seamstress Maeve with a crisp Irish accept and upbeat spirit.  Taking on a completely different demeanor, Otazo also plays the sophisticated owner of the House of Lucille, presenting the latest fashions to upper-crust buyers. 

Stuart Zagnit emerges notably as Abraham, a Jewish tailor whose son, Martin (Kevin Lowry) rejects the family tradition and wants to become a lawyer.  Also noteworthy is Jay Russell as stern Mr. Blanck, the callous, abusive boss whose indifference contributes to the death toll.  Locked doors, rusted water valves, blocked exits, flames from fabric, paper and dummies send the workers struggling to escape, even leaping from the windows. 

Confusion from the backward-forward time sequences is somewhat helped by set designer, Bryce Cutler's black-and-white projections of dates and places, although the sightlines in the theater block visibility in certain areas.  Cutler's set brick back wall resemble the factory and props by Debra Moolin enhance the feeling with basic old wooden furniture and machinery touches like the pedal sewing machine.  Deborah Constantine provides effective lighting ambiance and when the fire begins, red neon lights are impressionistic suggestions of flames, heat and smoke. 

Colleen Gleason provided accents and dialect coaching. Emily Chalmers created vintage costumes of the era and Inga Thrasher added hair-styles and makeup.  Most telling of the period, however, is the music, both original melodies by Carlene Stober and Ed Matthew and popular dances like the Castle Walk and waltz.  They add personality between scenes and at the end, melting with voices and memories, they recall the terror of the ordeal. 

For 80 minutes with no intermission, Viertel swiftly and concisely directs a historic disaster like a deadly arrow pointing to the necessary safety measures during the city's Industrial Revolution.  Speaking boldly are Whitfield's viable human beings, working against greed to achieve the American dream and then tragically battling in vain to save their own lives.  An emotional first production by the promising Chatillion Stage Company.


Theatre 54 at Shetler Studios and Theatres
Chatillion Stage Company
244 West 54th Street, 12th Floor, NYC
Previews: Oct. 12, 2017.  Opening: Oct. 18, 2017. Closing: Oct. 28, 2017
Running time: 80 minutes. No intermission.
Cast: Lauriel Friedman, Jake Horowitz, Kevin Lowry, Paulette Oliva, Laura King Otazo, Jay Russell, Malka Wallick, Stuart Zagnit
Playwright: Debra Whitfield 
Director: Benjamin Viertel

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
October 2017

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