Giants Have Us In Their Books: Spring’s first faculty theater performance brings stories of change and growth

By Edyth Moldow

Poster for Giants Have Us in Their Books

Think back to when you were younger, to a time when your creativity and imagination transported you into alternate worlds and transformed you into different versions of yourself. The childlike sense of wonder may be long gone, but fairytale daydreams have the lasting power to make difficult moments seem less daunting — even if just for a moment. The Middlebury College Department of Theatre’s production of “Giants Have Us in Their Books,” which ran from April 16 to April 18 both in person and online, transported its audience back to the fairytale stories of their childhood, while weaving in some of the harder things to deal with. 

The play is a collection of short works written by two-time Obie Award winner José Rivera, the first Puerto Rican screenwriter to be nominated for an Oscar. 

Rivera referred to the plays that comprise Act 1 as “the naïve plays,” stories which deliver realistic situations, like the trials of puberty and lying, with an air of lighthearted, fairytale-like wonder. Act 2 was a more sobering, introspective collection of short plays written by Rivera a decade later in 2017, and included timely topics like homelessness, grief and the effects of the  New York State’s 2011 Marriage Equality Law

Associate Professor of Theatre and the department’s chair, Alex Draper, directed the performance. 

“When it became clear that we were going to attempt to resume in-person performing this spring, Olga Sanchez Saltveit, who is directing our upcoming production of Branden Jacobs Jenkins’ “Everybody,” and I both began looking for plays that would honor our commitment to feature more underrepresented voices on our stages while also taking into account the considerable Covid-19 restrictions and their impact on how we can safely rehearse and perform” Draper said. 

The faculty, cast and crew worked on “Giants Have Us in Their Books” through the difficulties that the pandemic has created for artists. 

“[I] selected a group of plays that fit the talents of the cast, were joyous and slightly other-worldly, but that also spoke to issues that echoed beyond our immediate everyday lives,” Draper said. He explained that the plays were written in such a way that they could be rehearsed mostly in groups of two, and could be performed without actors overcrowding backstage areas and dressing rooms. 

The curtain opened on a short scene called “Flowers.”  Lulu (Sara Massey ’23), a 12-year-old girl, begins the play with what looks like a pimple on her face, but the bump slowly grows into a tapestry of leaves and flowers all over her face and body: a metaphor for how, through puberty we are brought from adolescence to adulthood and taken over in ways we cannot control. “When it’s over you’re completely different, unrecognizable,” Massey said in her performance. Mostly though, we grow into better versions of ourselves with time, much like seeds transition to buds, which grow to become leaves.

A short play, called “The Tiger in Central Park” closed out Act 1. This urbanized myth and parable for AIDS featured the supposed existence of a mythical beast: a human-by-day, tiger-by-night, reported to be strolling around Central Park. “[‘The Tiger in Central Park’] aimed to tackle sexuality and death, and establish a relationship between these two major aspects of human existence,” cast member Beck Barsanti ’23.5 said. “In my interpretation, sexuality and death were things that every character tried to control without fully understanding the implications of either one.”

After the intermission, Act 2 opened on “Charlotte,” a scene set in a picturesque apartment. A homeless woman (Courtney Wright ’21.5 ) who does not want to be pitied, is taken in by a caring individual, and we see a verbal tug-of-war between the two. At last, the host, Felix (Masud Tyree Lewis ’22), expresses he had only hoped for Charlotte’s gratitude after he had helped her out of the rainy night, leaving the audience to wonder about the nature and sincerity of altruism. 

The show concluded with “Lizzy,” a tense meal where two siblings address the passing of their mother, and “Paola and Andrea at the Altar of Words,” a reaction to the legalization of same sex marriage in New York State in 2011, shown through wedding vows. 

“It was a joy to be able to share the plays with both live and virtual audiences,” Draper said of the performance. Looking ahead, he said,  “We have a busy spring lined up, with three of our majors presenting productions as their senior independent theses, and we close the season with Olga Sanchez Saltveit’s production of Everybody in and around Wright Theatre.”