By Samantha Brandbergh
What would happen if Joan of Arc, Eve, Anne Frank and five other historical women were gathered in a room, all at the hands of religious radicalism?
“Faith in Shackles,” a play written and directed by senior theater performance major Justin Giachetti, will answer this question and many more during its premiere performances on Nov. 11 through Nov. 13 at Luna Stage in West Orange.
“Faith in Shackles” tells the story of a young lawyer, Ruth — the only original character in the production — who must defend the historical women, each of whom has run into conflict with religion. Through this, the audience will be able to see Ruth’s journey toward learning the true meaning of faith, Giachetti said.
The production is presented by Breaking Through the Box, a non-profit theater company, of which Giachetti is a co-founder.
After producing the play “Inferno,” which spent two weeks at the Flea Theater in New York City this past summer, Giachetti knew directing was the path he wanted to follow.
He presented the idea of starting a theater company to his friend and 2014 Fairleigh Dickinson University graduate Liz Carlin, who portrays Ruth in the play, and went through legal procedures to obtain licensing.
“We just really made sure we went through this in the most professional and legal way possible because we wanted to make something that was our own and a beacon to young artists,” Giachetti said.
For Carlin, starting a company was never on her radar.
“I never saw my career going that way,” she said. “I just thought, ‘OK, I’m gonna graduate, I’m gonna audition like crazy and [I’m] gonna be an actor. I never saw myself as someone who would create the theater. But then, I thought, ‘I would be an idiot not to follow through with this.’”
The name of the company, Breaking Through the Box, stems from stepping out of the molds and stereotypes actors are often put in, Giachetti said.
“You’ve always heard ‘think outside the box’ and I think [the name] is like breaking the glass ceiling, and you don’t even want to think outside the box, you want to break outside of it,” he said. “We had a list of about 15 different names and that was one of the last ones we came up with, and we just loved it.”
For the company’s opening season, Giachetti drew inspiration for “Faith in Shackles” from “Chamber Music,” a play written by Arthur Kopit.
“It’s about these nine women in an insane asylum; they believe themselves to be these women throughout history,” he explained. “You know everyone besides Amelia Earhart is insane, and I thought, ‘What if they weren’t insane?’”
The premise for “Faith in Shackles” was born while Giachetti was in a class on Shakespeare at Rider last year after hearing 2016 Rider alumna Juliana Long, who portrays a 19-year-old Joan of Arc in the play, read a Joan of Arc monologue.
“It made me think, ‘Well, what if I put her in a room, and I put Eve in that room and maybe throw Mary Magdalene in there. What would the three of them say? What would they do?” Giachetti said. “And then it just expanded into this Judeo-Christian look at faith.”
In addition to Long, the 13-person cast includes Deborah Bjornsti, ’15, and two current Rider students, senior theater performance major Alyssia Marte and freshman theater performance major Margaret Staedler.
Long was eager to be a part of the production because of Giachetti’s passion for his original work.
“I wanted to be a part of something that mattered to the person who created it,” she said.
When preparing for her role, Long chose to portray Joan of Arc in a different light compared to the “warrior” image many people picture.
“I tried to channel more of her innocence and her fascination with God through the eyes of a child, and then growing up and feeling the burden as the years go on,” she said. “She’s very strong-willed and stands up for her morality above anything else. I wanted to find out why she does the things she does.”
Giachetti’s directorial approach is unconventional, collaborative and workshop-esque, according to the cast. Through rehearsals, everyone’s opinions are heard, allowing the cast to make changes to the script, sometimes even writing their character’s own monologues.
“We would meet one-on-one with [Giachetti] sometimes, which is something other theater companies don’t do,” Long said. “He gave me free range and said, ‘If there’s something in this script that you don’t agree with and you don’t know if your character would say, let me know.’ Because it was so personal, I trusted him and didn’t feel like I was going to be crossing out all of his good work.”
Although Giachetti’s behind-the-scenes crew is small — just him and a lighting designer — directing this production has been an “easy” process, thanks to the cast.
“I have an incredible group of actors, and it’s really great because in the rehearsal room, we would just play, and I told them to forget the words,” he said. “With this cast, they find something new every single night, some of it is stuff I never thought of when I wrote it.”
While this production contains themes and characters of a religious nature, Giachetti and the cast believe that the non-religious will leave feeling inspired, as well.
“The reality of the situation is you can be a good person and believe in love without believing in God,” Carlin said. “I hope we reach all of the audience on that level because it’s a play about humanity. We’re trying to get rid of the rules and religion and get back to the core and, honestly, try to talk about how, at the core, all the religions are the same.”
Giachetti reiterated this point by stating that, behind the hate in the world, love is at the center, no matter in what faith.
“That’s what the Bible and the Torah and the Quran preach: love,” he said. “We need to stop pretending that the ‘invisible friend’ is so different. We shouldn’t use it to alienate people. It’s not a show about religion or God. It’s a show about belief and knowing that what you believe in can produce something good.”
Tickets are $15 for students and seniors and $20 for adults and can be purchased at bttb.booktix.com.
Printed in the 11/09/16 edition.