It’s not everyday you see a performance comprised of only two actors; it’s even less often that you see a performance where the two actors only directly interact with each other in one scene. Seniors Matthew Brogan and Rebecca Spiro have been talking about performing Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last 5 Years for, well, at least the last three years. Finally, this year, after witnessing the talent of junior pianist Chris Lawnsby, the trio decided it was time to make it happen.
Chronicling the relationship of Cathy Hyatt (Spiro) and Jamie Wallerstein (Brogan), the story unfolds with a chronologically unique and jolting twist. It follows Cathy from the end of their relationship to the beginning and, inversely, follows Jamie from the beginning of their relationship to the end. The opening scene shows a morose Cathy tearfully bemoaning the end of her and Jamie’s relationship, singing, “Still Hurting.” The bleak mood is abruptly curtailed when Jamie explodes onto the scene ebulliently singing of this great new “Shiksa Goddess” he has just met (Cathy).
The bittersweet tension evoked by these polarized moments is maintained throughout the play as the situation gradually gets better for Cathy, as she goes back in time, and quickly gets worse for Jamie as he goes forward in time. Of this remarkable tension, Brogan comments, “In each scene, we have to convince our audience to feel something completely different than the one before – some of the saddest moments are back to back with the happiest. The brilliance really lies in the fact that the facts of the story are laid out from the beginning, so the performance becomes about how these characters get there.”
Though the audience clearly knows the end at the very first scene, one remains captivated as the details of the troubled relationship are fleshed out song by song. The stark contrast of Jamie’s career success as a novelist to Cathy’s painful struggle to make it as a performer manifests one of the key sources of contention. The situation is complicated both by Cathy’s envy of Jamie’s advent into the glamorous world of beautiful desiring women and fame and by Jamie’s persistent encouraging for Cathy to wholeheartedly pursue her goals. Jamie sings, “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy, I will not lose so you can win.” It is moments like these, of raw and piercing truth that will move and captivate the audience; it is here that Brogan and Spiro will really cut the audience to the core with their unbelievable presence and veracity. Of these moments, Spiro remarks, “There are some things in this play that are really harsh. There are some sentiments that are expressed in this play that are very brutal and there are also some really wonderful moments of beautiful honesty, of real love.”
Brogan, Spiro and Lawnsby have been close friends throughout their theater careers at Colgate, and this intimacy shows on-stage. Their closeness powerfully amplifies the show’s pulsing emotion, of which Brogan comments, “… because of its difficult nature, these characters really need[ed] a strong chemistry that Rebecca and I have had for years. I also think this show is particularly special because it’s relevant to most Colgate students. So often we do a show (especially musicals) about such contrived situations, but this show is about our lives and our feelings and could have a tremendous impact as art.”
Given the intensely intimate nature of the show, Brogan and Spiro decided they needed a small space where the audience would essentially be as close as possible to the unfolding scenes before them. The audience will at times feel like they can hear the heartbeat of the performers. Performed in Ryan 212, Spiro and Brogan certainly have selected an arena which evokes a feeling of absorbing intimacy. The audience will feel as if it is personally involved in each moment, at times horrified by the brutal truth, at times joyful, but always engaged.
Lawnsby’s powerful piano notes and senior lighting director Nick Thielen’s tactfulness of light and shade magnify the intensity of emotions. It being such a small venue that lacks the lights needed for a more complex set, Thielen constructed his own lighting system.
The back-toback scenes of extreme sorrow to ecstasy are punctuated smartly by quick light changes of gloomy blue to blinding yellow, and music switches from soulful notes to make-you-wanna-dance beats. Originally, Lawnsby expected to have musical accompaniment; however, as the performance dates drew closer, the cast realized everyone was booked, and thus, he took on the high task of soloing the whole performance on the piano. Lawnsby clearly had a high task in front of him however Spiro asserts, “The music is hard for everybody… Chris has just been amazing.”
One of the most interesting facets of the play was the utter independence with which it has been directed (by Spiro and Brogan themselves) and made real. Spiro describes this approach of the show’s anything-goes element, “Usually, you have to audition, and usually, you have people say, I don’t think you’re ready, but we just decided to do it.”
Their initiative and hard work have culminated into what she dubs a “labor of love” performance, as well as “a sort of thank you. I think to all the people who have supported us for so long, you know, it’s saying: Look at what we’ve produced coming from everything you’ve given us.” What the physical set lacks in size is made gargantuan by the passion and radiance of two powerful actors and one gifted pianist, more importantly, three great friends, who have produced an effervescent show Brogan illustrates as a show that, “is about when no one is right or wrong. It never tries to assign blame, but instead expresses the ways we all make mistakes and we all have struggled with love. It leaves the audience with questions rather than answers, and it is a show they can carry with them for years to come.”
The Last 5 Years will run on Friday April 22nd and Saturday April 23rd in Ryan 212.