‘Fire’ leaves audience charred

Theater is at its worst when it is self-consciously moralistic. The second we feel like we’re being preached to, the experience is ruined.

Regrettably, such is the sorry case of Christopher Piehler’s The Triangle Factory Fire Project, which opened Nov. 5 at USC’s Bing Theatre. The show — the first of two shows this academic year to showcase second-year master’s in fine arts acting students — starts off promising, but is rapidly undone by an exploitative, glacially paced and didactic script that not even capable performances could redeem.

Second-year MFA acting students perform in The Triangle Factory Fire Project last weekend at Bing Theatre. The drama is centered around the historical tragedy that took place in 1911. - Nathaniel Gonzales

Second-year MFA acting students perform in The Triangle Factory Fire Project last weekend at Bing Theatre. The drama is centered around the historical tragedy that took place in 1911. - Nathaniel Gonzales

History buffs know the story. On March 25, 1911, a fire of unknown origin — possibly caused by a cigarette — broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. The factory employed some 500 immigrant workers, mostly women; 146 of them were killed in the blaze. In what seems tragic bad luck, everything went wrong for the women on the ninth floor. The warning came too late, the elevator stopped working, the fire escape collapsed and one of the doors leading down to the safer floors below was apparently locked. They had no escape.

Except out of the windows. Scores of burning bodies rained down on the streets below. A crowd of onlookers watched helplessly; firefighters had no ladder long enough to reach the floor. Women were later found piled up in the elevator shaft and at the base of the broken fire escape.

The Triangle Factory Fire Project is the story of the fire — mostly from the perspective of several of the women (victims and survivors) — and the court case that followed. The co-proprietors of the factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were charged with manslaughter, but later acquitted.

This play obviously isn’t the first of its kind. History has always been the playwright’s biggest playground. Masters (think Shakespeare) employ the past to inform the present, but are careful never to exploit it for some moralistic purpose.

But Piehler is no master. With The Triangle Factory Fire Project, he sets out to make something meaningful, but falls short. The characters — especially Mrs. Belmont, a feminist leader who rallies the factory women to protest poor working conditions — never let up on the pompous rhetoric. The play is too weighty for its own good; it buckles under the pressure to be significant.

But this might be less the fault of Piehler than it is of this particular production. Indeed, in the “Notes on This Adaptation” section of the playbill, someone (presumably Jack Rowe, the director) writes, “Let’s see: immigration, corporate regulation, women’s rights, the health and well-being of the American worker and outright greed. Sounds a lot like what’s in the air today, doesn’t it? And isn’t theatre still the perfect place to reflect upon our past, to help us discover who we have become and how we treat another?”

Perhaps, but never intentionally. That is the most fundamental mistake in Rowe’s production: trying to provide answers instead of asking questions.

This play wouldn’t be worth seeing if it weren’t for a few fine performances. Nine actors play 29 parts — and remarkably, we are rarely confused. Of course, they put on various accents for each of their characters. Few of the accents are any good (despite the several European countries represented by the immigrant women, most sound vaguely and comically Russian), but they help avoid confusion. The strength of the performances, it seems, correlates with the strength of the accents.

Rafe Corkhill is deeply affecting as Officer John Meehan, trying in a short scene to reason with a grieving mother of one of the victims, probably because his Irish brogue — subtle, not overplayed — is respectable. His European Samuel Bernstein, on the other hand, is unconvincing.

Nobody in the cast stands out, but several of the actors are commendable: Danielle Thorpe, especially in her portrayal of Margaret Schwartz, the factory girl whose story is the most fleshed out; Amielynn Abellera in all her roles; and Joseph O’Malley, who in one role plays a reporter whose experience with the factory fire frames the play.

Amin El Gamal is poorly cast, and overly pantomimic in his caricature of a representation of sleazy factory owner Max Blanck. Eric Schulman is a fine lawyer, and Malika Williams succeeds as Rose Freedman, but not as Margaret’s mother, Bertha Schwartz.

An overall note for the cast: Shouting is not acting, and should not be used to convey emotion.

In general, Piehler has a flair for the monologue — where this emotion comes out — but his dialogue needs work (“Nobody forgives me.” “I forgive you.” “You do?” “Yes.”).

If the first act of the play — recounting the fire from the perspective of the men and women inside the building — is bearable, the second act is nearly unwatchable. The pace, already uneven, stops dead in its tracks with a drawn-out courtroom scene involving petty squabbling over minute points.

Of course, we’re supposed to be appalled that the lives of 146 people have been reduced to such pettiness, but we’re merely bored. The repetition of contemporaneous newspaper headlines to break up the narrative, which start off as an inventive storytelling technique, is dulled by overuse.

In the end, The Triangle Factory Fire Project does not, as Rowe hoped, help us discover who we have become and how we treat another. Some clever storytelling devices and a few nice performances do not hide the fact that the play does all thinking for us, as if we cannot intepret things ourselves. Theater is at its best when it knows that we can.