Omeleto

Standing Ovation

By Chase Gutzmore | Drama
An actor is on the verge of his 'big break'. But he's pushed to his limit.

Charles Henderson is an actor about to get his "big break." He's been cast in a play about slavery written and directed by acclaimed playwright Kurt Santiago. Charles is nervous but talented and determined, and he aims to impress and deliver for Santiago.

But Santiago is known for doing whatever it takes to pull the best performances out of his actors. And as Charles interacts with Santiago to pull together the rawest, most powerful performance from Charles, Charles is pushed to go into the darkest abysses of his psyche, confronting the very question of who he is.

Directed by Chase Gutzmore from a script co-written with Alex Tacher -- who also play Charles and Santiago, respectively -- this powerful short drama is a performance within a performance, as ambitious actor Charles aims to deliver a performance for a star-making theatrical auteur. Many films about the artistic process of theater or film use the layers of reality and performance to ask questions about the divides between life and art and often examine the distance between what we say about something versus what it is. But as Charles both grapples, fails and flails under an increasingly impatient, brutal Santiago to bring a searing text to life, those layers fall apart, and Charles must face the darkest corners of his personal history.

The writing is rich in conflict and character, from the dramatic thunder of the play-within-the-film to the relationship between actor and director. Though the narrative set-up is minimal -- the majority of the story is Charles on a stage with Santiago and his assistant in the seats below -- the storytelling takes advantage of the theater's penchant for volume and expressiveness to ratchet up the tension with a well-calibrated sense of pacing and build-up. The craftsmanship also takes advantage of the setting's ability to sculpt expressionistic, stark lighting, giving the visuals a moody, almost sumptuous drama. Working alongside the sharp, instinctual editing, the film has a bigger look and feel that suits the emotional register of the storytelling.

As Charles attempts, again and again, to bring the climactic speech of Santiago's play to life, he increasingly frustrates the director and playwright, who begins to lash out at Charles. Watching Charles struggle under Santiago's exacting and merciless direction is tough, and Gutzmore deftly captures Charles's frustration and helplessness, especially as Santiago -- played by actor Alex Tascher with sharpness and intensity -- skews abusive and cruel. Santiago forces Charles to delve into his deepest layers and darkest secrets, until he is confronted with the soul-shaking vulnerability, shame and fear that finally delivers the final speech with raw, hard-won and unforgettable emotion.

"Standing Ovation" ends with a powerful rush of emotion that's as cathartic and wrenching for the audience as it is for the actor. But it also leaves us with uneasy questions. If art-within-art asks questions about the spaces between life and how we talk and tell about it, the fact that the play within "Standing Ovation" is about slavery asks us to consider our stories and understanding of that dark chapter in U.S. history, and how it continues to shape and haunt the lives and identities of modern descendants of enslaved people today. It asks these thought-provoking questions in an emotionally compelling, intelligent way, as it ends with one man looking into these questions, perhaps for the first time, and confronting his familial and historical legacy of pain.





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