When Kirsten Brandt attended a Shakespeare Santa Cruz performance in summer 2021, the assistant professor of theater was overcome with emotion. She hadn’t experienced live theater as an audience member for a year and a half due to the pandemic, and wasn’t prepared for the gratitude and relief she’d feel watching actors interact live.
This fall, after directing multiple live-streamed and virtual shows, Brandt is thrilled to direct in-person performances of “Marisol” at the Hammer Theatre — the university’s first performance in front of a live, masked audience since early 2020.
“We’ve had events during the pandemic, even performed live on the Hammer stage, but it’s just not the same without an in-person audience reacting in real time,” said Brandt. “This is why we are in theater — we want that tangible connection with an audience.”
Brandt chose the Obie-award-winning “Marisol,” a play written in the late 1980s by Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera, because the subject matter aligns with two of SJSU’s College of Humanities and the Artscurricular communities: the Inclusion Initiative and Sustainable Futures.
“College programming themes are chosen based on faculty interest, but also the most important issues affecting us today,” said Shannon Miller, dean of the College of Humanities and the Arts. “Sustainability, social justice and racial equity seemed to be the most important issues for our students to consider, given the fires and other climate change events that have been impacting California so devastatingly over the last few years, as well as the murder of George Floyd and the aftermath of this tragic event.”
“The play mirrors many of the events happening today,” said Brandt. “It talks about how the Earth is dying. It references ‘the plague that killed my friends,’ bad water, climate change, systemic racism and the need for empathy when helping people with mental health challenges. It is the theatre of the absurd meeting magical realism and calls attention to the horrific things in society in a tragicomic way. It incites action.”
The ‘compassionate badass’
Marisol, the show’s protagonist — played by Nayeli Roman, ’24 Radio-Television-Theatre-Film — is a copy editor for a Manhattan publisher. She’s confronted by her guardian angel, who informs her that the angels have declared war upon a senile, power-hungry god. Written in the tradition of the theater of the absurd — an existentialist genre that explores the absurdity of humanity — “Marisol” explores relevant social issues in a quickly changing world.
Roman calls Marisol a “compassionate badass,” adding how much it means to her as a Puerto Rican actor to play a Puerto Rican character created by a Puerto Rican playwright. While the play addresses racism, sexual assault and gun violence, Roman said that “when audience members view this play … they feel the urgency for change.”
She looks forward to hearing audience reactions in real time to her performance. Though she made her debut on the Hammer stage in last spring’s “Alone Together,” this will be her first time performing in front of an in-person audience with SJSU.
“As a performer for 10 years now, nothing compares to the experience of live performance and how gratifying it is to see and hear the audience’s reactions to your performance,” said Roman. “Live-streaming theater performances for me are enjoyable because I still get to perform, but it feels so empty looking at seats instead of faces. Performing in the live stream of ‘Alone Together’ was especially bittersweet because it was my first time performing and even being in the Hammer Theatre, but it was also the first time my family was not there to see me perform.”
She is looking forward to seeing fellow actors’ faces without masks, adding that when she and her cast mates are able to perform maskless, it “makes working with each other much more interactive in the sense that we won’t only have to focus on each other’s eyes and can react to things with our whole being.”
“Marisol” will be performed at the Hammer Theatre Nov. 12-20. Audience members are required to wear masks and present proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test within 72 hours of attendance.