Life's Rich Pageant gives Richard "Rich" Gustafson a chance to tell the story of his dramatic childhood years and impart his ensuing wisdom. With writing by Susan McCue and illustrations by Eric Palma, the story comes alive for the audience.
Gustafson has lived anything but a normal life. Raised in East Flatbush by a Chinese mother and Swedish father, he experienced hardship and trauma. Gustafson faces violence in the neighborhood and at home while his family struggles to make ends meet. After a stint as a drug dealer, his father starts a career as a model for gay magazines and later opens and operates a gay bath house in the East Village. The family then moves to the Jersey Shore. Despite now living in a safer neighborhood, Gustafson still can't catch a break as both of his parents slip deeper into addiction. His father no longer lives with the family, and his mother dies due to her heavy addiction to barbiturates. Gustafson's father sends his brother to live with his children as their guardian. Their uncle is not much of a guardian. He is an alcoholic and former homeless felon who provides little support to the five children. Eventually, Gustafson ends up moving in with the family of his high school best friend. He graduates high school, goes to Rutgers and has a successful career in finance. Gustafson and his siblings are all still alive and doing well. However, Gustafson speaks to the long-lasting effects of childhood trauma and the scars his past has left. "We all have scars, they may fade but they never go away."
Gufstafon spends the solo show standing in front of a black screen and an iPad propped in front of him. The show never uses or acknowledges the iPad, so I believe it was a teleprompter. The performance could have been improved had Gustafson memorized the story, as he often tripped over the words. Even if Gustafson struggled to memorize the script word for word, he could have easily improved parts since he lived the story. In fact, I am puzzled by the use of a writer to tell Gustafson's personal experience. I wonder what his story would sound like in his own words. I may prefer it, actually. In addition, this connection to intimate knowledge of the writing could have helped boost Gustafson's performance.
Although the piece has a good foundation, it could have benefited from collaboration with a director, particularly one with experience staging solo shows. Throughout the piece, Gustafson kept shifting his weight back and forth in a way that was sometimes distracting. A director could have helped him cultivate a stronger physical presence and added blocking, so Gustafson wasn't standing in the same place the whole show, making for a more visually entertaining experience. The only prop was a water bottle, which Gustafson drank from in the most emotionally vulnerable parts of the show, sometimes even turning away from the audience. This is a very real, understandable, and human impulse, particularly for a show focusing primarily on the performer's trauma. However, from a theatrical standpoint, these moments could have been utilized to connect to the audience instead of pulling away.
This show hit hard with its authentic storytelling of trauma. Fans of autobiographical theatre and stories of overcoming childhood abuse will surely appreciate this solo show and glean wisdom from Rich's life.
“Life’s Rich Pageant”
Performed by Richard Gustafson
Written by Susan McCue
March 12 and 19, 2023
The Spring 2023 United Solo Festival
March 7th - March 26th, 2023
410 West 42nd (btw 9th and 10th Avenue)
Carmen! is a trans-multimedia artist specializing in playwriting, acting and crochet. Originally from Jacksonville Beach, Florida, they are currently based in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, returning to their Atlantic Oceanic roots. Their play Taking the Plunge has been performed at the Tank and the Chain off Broadway and in the 2023 Fresh Fruit Festival slated this June. Carmen has also worked in front of house and technical positions for prominent theater organizations including New Dramatists, Portland Playhouse, Emursive and Future Proof. Carmen’s mission is to use play to create meaningful representation by and for underrepresented communities. For more information on Carmen! Follow them on socials @carmenacetosociety or check out www.carmenburbridge.info