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A CurtainUp Review

The Triangle Factory Fire Project

The nun [at St. Vincent's hospital] told me it was wonderful that I had enough presence of mind when I jumped to wrap something around my hands to save them from injury as I grasped the cable. But it wasn't presence of mind, it was my new fur muff. I wasn't going to lose that muff. I think the real word for my presence of mind is vanity.
--- Ethel, one of the survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
Norah Chester  and   Francesca Di Mauro
Norah Chester and Francesca Di Mauro
(Photo: Carol Rosegg )
Combining a great tragedy and a headline making courtroom trial makes for a heady mix for using the theater as a vehicle for dynamic social commentary. John Logan created a memorable thought-provoking play about the troubling Leopold and Loeb murder case with Never the Sinner. Moisés S. Kaufman made his first big splash as an innovative director with Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and again with The Laramie Project, his exploration of the Matthew Shepard murder.

Christopher Piehler's The Triangle Factory Fire Project recreates one of New York City's most horrific disasters within the context of its time and ours. Seeing the infamous 1911 fire as a microcosm within the macrocosm of the more recent towering inferno catastrophe makes this one of the most sobering dramas you're likely to see on any New York stage.

The fire, in case you're fuzzy on the actual facts, occured in 1911 in New York's largest shirtwaist factory which occupied the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street (Now owned by NYU). It took just half an hour to snuff out the lives of 146 workers who either succumbedto the flames or were killed as a result of jumping down eleavator shafts or out of windows that the fire ladders weren't high enough to reach . Most of the victims were young immigrant women for whom working long hours for little pay was a tiny step towards independence and a better life. The fire let to an outcry for more effective fire fighting and prevention fighting, and led to an indictment of the factory owners for their deadly practice of keeping an exit doors locked. The conditions and wages in factories had already stirred up labor union leaders and women's voting rights advocates and the fire provided more fuel for their cause.

Like John Logen and Moisés S. Kaufman, Mr. Piehler intermingles newpaper reportage with dramatized excerpts of the people directly and indirectly involved in the fire of characters. The first act sets the fire within the context of the burgeoning labor and suffragette movements which rings in speeches by labor leader Samuel Gompers (Timothy McCracken) and Mrs. August Belmont (Nora Chester), as well as a young woman who's something of an early Karen Silkwood (Rachel Fowler) and culminates in a replay of the fire that is at once wrenching and riveting.

The second act focuses on the trauma of the survivors and their families, the trial in which the District Attorney tries to establish Harris and Blanck, the factory owners' (Jamie Bennett and Timothy McCracken) culpability with a suit on behalf of one victim, Margaret Schwartz.

Naturally, an event so well documented (in press and legal archives, books and a film) can have neither a surprise ending or -- given the multiple deaths of as still unlived lives -- a happy one. The playwright does strike an upbeat note in the finale which points to the societal and safety measures that the tragedy helped to bring about. Being true to fact, however, the playwright does not let sunshine overhsadow the clouds of irony via the snippets from advertisements for newer and more fashionable shirtwaists to indicate that while you can rejoice that life, like fashion, goes on so do the the Blancks and Harrises of this world (the men not only profited from the fire but were indicted once more for locking an exit door).

Director Scott Alan Evans has done a good job of creating the aura of a bustling metropolis. His nine actors gamely and expertly take on thirty-four parts. There are some character portrayals that particularly stick to the mind: Nora Chesters, whose work I recently enjoyed in The Pagans (review) is especially good as the best friend of Margaret Schwartz, and as the rich Mrs. Belmont for whom the fire was another rallying cry for women's rights; Francesca Di Maura pulls at our heartstrings as, among others, Margaret's mother; and Rachel Fowler, last seen as the title character in the The Daughter-In-Law (Review) is excellent as the hapless Margaret. In an ironic bit of casting, there's also Scott Schafer. He's terrific as Margaret's grief-stricken brother and even more so as the hateful lawyer, Max Steuer, who intimidated witness after witness during the trial in which the factory owners were accused of her death as a result of their keeping an exit locked.

Mimi Lien's two-tiered set abets the scene changes, and Mary Louise Geiger's lighting subtly underscores the shifts in mood and tension. There are times when the reportage sections in which the actors jumping forward to shout out contextual headlines are too readily anticipated and thus repetitious. While it's hard to leaven an event this tragic with humor, a bit more might have been possible had the playwright managed a few nips and tucks in the newspaper headline and trial scenes to make room for at least a few brief scenes of the women's interaction in the factory before the fire. However, these are minor complaints in a generally powerful two hours

The Triangle Fire Project runs longer than is usual with TACT productions, but even so it's only scheduled for sixteen performance. At just $15 a ticket, even a sliver thin wallet shouldn't hold you back from seeing this vividly reenacted all too timely slice of history.

The Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
The Laramie Project
John Logan's Never the Sinner in New York and in New York

The Triangle Factory Fire Project
Written by Christopher Piehler
Conceived and Directed by Scott Alan Evans.
Cast: Jamie Bennett, Nora Chester, Francesca Di Mauro, Kyle Fabel, Rachel Fowler,Kelly Hutchinson, Timothy McCracken, James Murtaugh, Scott Schafer.
Set Design: Mimi Lien
Costume Design: David Toser
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger

Composer: Colin McGrath
Fight Director: Ax Norman
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Actors Company Theatre (TACT) at Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street (9th/ 10th Avenues) 212/2396200
5/14/04 to 5/29/04; opening 5/19/04.
Mon & Wed through Sat @ 8:00PM, Sat & Sun @ 2:00PM, Sun @ 7:00PM --$16.25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance
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