The performance area of this store-front theater, nestled next to the Bryn Mawr El stop is set in a square. Cabaret tables, complete with candles casually surround a large square platform, raised about two feet. The extremities of the room are furnished with old chairs, sofas and floor lamps—an unusual setting for a heartbreaking drama.
There are only two performers in Lela; Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel as Lela and Chris Chmelik as various men in her life. Lela opens her story by promising us the truth, something that rarely exists in her world. Though not mentioned, you can imagine that the setting is a Balkan country at the time of one of the recent wars.
Lela is the youngest in the family; a fresh 15-year-old whose father has already figured out how to win at emotional games. On her first trip to the “big city”, she meets and soon marries a friend of her sister’s husband. When the fighting begins, her husband, noted for his business sense, sees the opportunity in a brothel. Initially he just sells Lela’s time to friends, but the business prospers and he makes other women sex slaves to service the soldiers.
Lela moves throughout the set, often talking directly to audience members, even standing on a table. Her men stalk behind her, menacing Lela and audience alike. This fluid choreography around the set affects the audience with the audacious proximity of action and keeps them constantly following the actors with their eyes and bodies.
There is nothing pretty about Lela & Co.. The ending is not unexpected. While Lela continues to speak words of hope, the audience sinks into despair. The beauty is the performances. Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel is splendid as Lela—never losing our attention throughout nearly two hours on stage. Chris Chemlik is a worthy sparring partner—lithe, mean and deceitful, cringeworthy.
Steep Theatre hits it out of the park again. This play is a prince, highly recommended for those who seek challenging theater.