Phoenix Rising

by Jonathan Leaf

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday June 30, 2016

The new show "Phoenix Rising: Girls And The Secrets We Keep" is set in the mid-1980s, but in spirit it harkens back to the 1970s. Most especially, I am reminded of poet-playwright Ntozake Shange's Obie-Award winning drama of female empowerment, "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf."

Like the author behind that widely performed play, dramatist and director Laura Gosheff is writing from personal experience. But her range of subjects is broader than Shange's in that she is writing about the lives of both black and white women, as well as issues for straight and gay.

The setting for her story is a New York high school classroom in 1985. Five troubled seniors are instructed by a mysterious figure (Kristen Vaughan) who appears, an older woman wearing a long dress. The new instructor, it turns out, is possessed (so to speak) of a keen interest in witchcraft, and in a series of surrealistic seances she forces the girls to address their conflicts and their very serious problems at home.

The resultant drama is a strange cross of "The Breakfast Club," "Altered States" and a rape counseling meeting.
But, if it sounds odd, it was rarely dull, and most of the crowd watching it was plainly uplifted and moved. Moreover, Gosheff adds to the power and energy of her tale of these five young women confronting adulthood through her staging, which features a great deal of spectacle and some singing.

Hence, the show's ninety minutes move by relatively briskly.
And, although the cast Gosheff has picked is relatively inexperienced, it is not untalented. Most worth noting are Miranda Roldan and Nicollette Shorts. The latter plays a religious girl struggling with her sexuality.

To me the show was strongest during its intermittent moments of naturalism as Gosheff has a good ear for how people really talk. Yet, for most, the show's appeal is likely to be greatest during the periods when it breaks from verisimilitude in order to show its characters in trance-like states where they must face their demons. Through these, the play reveals its story.

One of the teens (Rachel Haas), a dancer, we soon learn has died. Surviving her and dealing with their grief are Lola (Whitney Biancur), Angela (Julia Marie Peterson), Carmen (Roldan) and Edwina (Shorts). Each has earned a reputation in their school: Lola as the good-time girl, Angela as a disaffected punk intellectual, Carmen as a sexy Latina who readily attracts boys and Edwina as a naive black girl who is wrapped up with her involvement in her church.

It's relatively obvious that each of these women has some real-life model, either someone that Gosheff met in her school days or later on in counseling sessions. They are not simply caricatures though, and this play is heartfelt in its depiction of them.

(Full disclosure: my very kindred friend Daniel Neiden worked with Gosheff in developing this play.)

"Phoenix Rising: Girls And The Secrets We Keep" runs through July 16 at the Lion Theatre on Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. For tickets and information, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.livinglotusproject.org.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.