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The Gradient
by Steph Del Rosso
Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 8, 2021

Stephanie Machado, Yousof Sultani
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It would be nice to have a “quick fix” or “miracle cure” for many of the world’s problems. Most of the time, however, despite slick packaging, savvy marketing, and smooth sales pitches, often times when something is promised as a “cure” for a given evil, it turns out to be “too good to be true”. The Gradient, a new world-premiere play at the Rep, brings this concept to the “#MeToo” movement. With a clever, satirical script, sleek production values, and an excellent cast, this show takes a thought-provoking, somewhat fantastical approach to a very real, timely issue.

The first aspects of this show that make an impression are the set and the sales pitch. “The Gradient” of the play’s title is a company that’s hawking a “cure” for sexual misconduct mostly among men–including sexual harassment and assault–by means of an algorithm that is supposed to help the company’s counselors target their approach to the individual clients they are working with. Company co-founder Natalia (Christina Acosta Robinson) is featured in the marketing materials, using her best “infomercial” voice to tout this revolutionary new method, and promising near-miraculous results. The slickly produced video is projected on screens on scenic designer Carolyn Mraz’s stylish set that evokes a trendy office environment, highlighted by Mextly Couzin’s eye-catching lighting design. When we first see Natalia outside of the video, she’s welcoming a new employee–the idealistic Tess (Stephanie Machado)–to the office. Natalia comes across as somewhat gruff at first, but Tess’s co-worker Louis (William DeMerrit) assures his new colleague that she improves on acquaintance. As the story plays out, we get to see what life is like at The Gradient for Tess as she interacts with her co-workers and with her new clients, and especially Jackson (Yousof Sultani), a smooth-talking client who may or may not be making actual progress. The approach to the story is largely comic, but with a somewhat ominous undercurrent suggesting the reality of The Gradient’s “success stories” might not be exactly as the promotional materials have been suggesting, as well as contrasting the initially enthusiastic Tess’s reactions to her experiences at The Gradient to that of her more “realist” colleagues. 

With the focus here being mostly on Tess and her fellow Gradient employees, we don’t get a detailed explanation of what most of the clients did to be referred to the Gradient (as an alternative to prison or jail, apparently), but we see a range of personalities and attitudes represented, from the “charmer” approach of Jackson to a variety of other clients all played by one actor (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) who approach their sessions with Tess differently–from denial, to fear, to open hostility, etc. The scenes of Tess’s counseling sessions are alternated with “behind the scenes” moments at the office, and occasionally more of the promotional pitches, as we see “testimonials” from former clients and more insistent voiceovers from Natalia, with the contrast between the packaging of The Gradient’s product and the reality of its results becoming more apparent, and its effects on the company’s employees are also starkly compared. In addition to the main issue being presented, the play also deals with issues of work-life balance, corporate culture, and advertising vs. reality. In addition to some broad satire, The Gradient also features some intense emotional moments and a story that isn’t quite as predictable as it may seem at first. 

While the client characters are more one-dimensional, the Gradient employees are much more complex, and the performances across the board are excellent. Cefalu’s comically strong portrayal of eight distinctly different clients, and Sultani’s ingratiating Jackson are memorable, and DeMerrit’s friendly, mostly upbeat Louis also makes an impression. The biggest standouts, though, are Robinson as the enigmatic Natalia, and Machado as the initially idealistic but increasingly unsettled Tess. These two are the dominant characters in the story, representing a contrast in approaches as well as characters who have a lot more going on inside than they first let on. Both give stunning performances, with Machado having a memorable emotional moment late in the play that’s especially remarkable, and Robinson getting to deliver almost as strong an emotional punch in a more understated way in the play’s denouement. The interplay between the various characters is also impressive and memorable.

Technically, the show is especially impressive, with the stunning set and lighting, as well as memorable projection design by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, providing the ideal atmosphere for the action. There’s also excellent sound design by Sadah Espii Proctor, and well-suited costumes by Raquel Barreto. The pacing is well-timed, with occasional deliberately uncomfortable audience engagement in keeping with the plays generally satirical tone. 

While the ending is somewhat abrupt, the overall idea seems to be that there aren’t any “easy answers” to the problems dealt with here. While that conclusion isn’t really surprising, The Gradient deals with its subject in a way that’s sure to provoke thought and discussion. On stage at COCA’s new Catherine B. Berges Theatre, this is a new show that’s worth checking out. 

Christina Acosta Robinson, William DeMerrit
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Gradient at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA until October 24, 2021

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