Arts Editor Maya Campbell attended the NOMADS production of Lily Kepler and the Graveyard Shift written by Sara Bell CC ‘21, directed by Caroline Itzkoff BC ‘24, and produced by Mario Garcia CC ‘21, Ruya Tazebay BC ‘24, and Emily Lord SEAS ‘23.

Wide panoramic shots of the rolling waves and empty fields of Northern California are accompanied by slow, soothing music as the audience settles in for the show.  These peaceful images are disrupted as a bloodied knife appears on the screen and the music and images take a sinister turn.  Each character is highlighted before the screen goes black and the show truly begins.

Lily Kepler and the Graveyard Shift tells the story of a house in Half Moon Bay, California and the people within its walls.  The house originally belonged to Rosa Morales (Bella Fenn CC ‘24) and was later repurposed as the radio studio teen Lily Kepler (Abigail Duclos BC ‘23) now works at.  The play takes place in the study of the house with the two plots told with alternating scenes as the stories separated by time become progressively intertwined.  

The show was live streamed on youtube for each performance and combined the use of live “zoom theatre” with pre-recorded shots of the characters and setting of the play.  Lily Kepler not only adapted to but embraced the field of virtual theatre, maintaining and enhancing the live theatre experience so critical to the enjoyment of theatre.

The play begins in the 1990s with Lily Kepler, a recent high school graduate, working the 1 am graveyard shift at 87.6 FM KHMB, a local live country radio station. Lily gets an anonymous call from Rosa, the owner of the house in the 1890s, warning her about an earthquake and saying her best friend Alana (Jamie Baker BC ’23) is in danger.

In the 1890s plot, Rosa and her wife Bernie (Izabella Lizarazo BC ‘24) have snuck to talk in the study away from the chaos of Bernie’s birthday party happening in the other room.  We are introduced to Bernie’s sister Fay (Abigail Duclos BC ‘23) who has fallen into a loveless marriage after Bernie left her to go live her life elsewhere, and Bernie’s ex-girlfriend Louisa (Indira Ramgolam CC ‘22) who Bernie left to return home to Fay.

The tension between the characters rises as they drink throughout the night and gain the courage to confront one another about their wrongdoings.

Back at the radio station Alana and high school friend, Connor (Indira Ramgolam CC ’22) are back safe from the flames that got incredibly close to Alana during her hike. Lily is obviously upset and scared at this close call, but keeps largely to herself. The group is joined by their childhood friend Lourdes (Bella Fenn CC ‘24), who left the gang for a private prep school in high school, and her contrasting best friend, rave junkie Dorothea (Izabella Lizarazo BC ‘24). 

They reconnect as everyone is back home from college and Lily continues to get more and more frustrated, her emotion punctuated by frequent earthquakes and aftershocks that send the friends and the station into a state of disarray.

The play climaxes as Lily finally erupts at Alana, unable to take her friend’s carelessness anymore. She feels hurt that they abandoned her for college and just expect her to be there when they return. In a particularly powerful line, Lily exclaims, “You don’t know. You don’t have to stay here while everyone else leaves.” causing Alana to storm off in anger.

During Bernie’s birthday party, Fay’s husband Christopher (Jamie Baker BC ’23) bursts in in a furious flurry. He begins to threaten to kill Fay and when he makes a lunge for her, Rosa strikes him with a candlestick and the screen goes black.

After these respective climaxes, the characters are left to pick up the pieces of the mess they have caused and try to repair their relationships. Rosa struggles to come to terms with what will happen to her as Bernie, Louisa, and Fay work to bury the body before anyone finds out. The audience is left with a scene of Rosa, finally at peace with what she has done, reading in her study.

In the radio station, Lily and Alana have a vulnerable heart to heart as Lily shows that her worry for Alana comes from the deep love she feels for her both as a friend and perhaps as something more. The tender moment is disrupted as a tsunami warning begins to blare through the streets, forcing them out of the station to run to safety.

As Lily and Alana race out of the station the audience is left with little closure to the events that unfolded in the house both in the 1990s and in the 1890s.  The play is only a snapshot of time, not the full story.  This glimpse into the world the characters live leaves much up to the audiences interpretation and allows them to create their own conclusions about what happens to the characters. I really appreciated the cliff hanger because I felt that the lack of a denouement placed more emphasis on the expert development of the relationships between the characters than the progression of the plot.

The only point of confusion for me was how Rosa was able to call Lily and know about the earthquakes and fires.  While I appreciated the connection between the two plot lines I wondered if these phone calls were hallucinations, as Lily’s friends implied, or somewhat supernatural occurrences connected to the characters’ shared space in the house.

Overall, Bell’s writing was compelling and shockingly realistic despite the unfeasibility of some of the show’s elements.  Bell’s ability to create real and relatable characters in both the 1990s and the 1890s I felt deeply connected to by the end of the play is truly something to be applauded.

One of my favourite aspects of the show was the purposeful double casting of the characters in each time period. The characters that were paired up initially seemed to be sharp contrasts of each other but, as the play developed, the core similarities between the characters were revealed proving that, although the house may stand repurposed for a new century, the people never really change. This decision to double cast each character strengthened the bond between the two plots and allowed the actors to demonstrate their personal range in portraying contrasting characters

One of the most notable performances was the incredible work of leading actor Abigial Duclos.  Duclos’ roles as title character Lily Kepler in the 1990s and housewife Fay in the 1890s popped off of the screen with her expressive facial expressions and dynamic acting style. Her ability to switch between the emotional portrayal of pain, fear, and joy in each character was truly powerful. 

Although Lily and Fay’s exteriors may seem different as could be, they both struggle with feeling abandoned and unrequited love.  Duclos pulled out these similarities in the characters and her portrayal of each expertly connected their lives together, weaving their separate stories into one and strengthening the bond between the two plots.

I was extremely impressed with the set and props design by Erin Ergun BC ‘21.  During scenes identical prop pieces were “passed” between characters through screens in a way that made it almost believable that they were in the same room. Uniform backgrounds also appeared in each actor’s zoom square to create a more cohesive setting and tie together the scene as a whole.

From the identical posters in the radio booth down to the mirror hanging on the wall in the study, not a single detail was neglected and the effort paid off by producing a cohesive visual production.

Second-year biomedical informatics master’s student Sal Volpe’s sound design of the show was equally impressive with perfectly timed sound effects that added a much-needed level of richness to the often barren soundscape of zoom theatre.  The inclusion of effects like doors opening and closing and the range of voices getting progressively louder mimicked characters entering and exiting a scene is a surprisingly similar fashion to live theatre. Although there were a few issues with the audio not synching with the actors’ video, the otherwise pristine sound design definitely enhanced the overall performance.

In addition to these more theatrical elements, Syeda Anjum BC ‘21 worked as the production’s film consultant and artfully wove together pre-recorded videos to provide a deeper look into Half Moon Bay and the characters’ lives outside of the dialogue in the play.

Lily Kepler’s excellent technical design was able to maintain the feeling of intimacy and connectedness achieved by live theatre while simultaneously using technology to incorporate cinematic elements that elevated the story.  The combination of live and pre-recorded segments flowed together seamlessly to create a meaningful virtual performance.

At the end of the day, Lily Kepler was a story about love and passion. Throughout the play, the characters argue, abandon friends, and even kill, all because of their love for one another.  Bell’s writing portrayed a complex and nuanced understanding of love and connection as each character felt and expressed their emotions in different ways.  

I think one of the reasons I was so moved by the show was the way I was able to connect to the actors through the pixels in front of me. I could feel the love the cast and crew had for each other, the show, and for theatre as a whole. It was nothing short of magical.

Each performance of Lily Kepler and the Graveyard Shift is still available for streaming on NOMADS’ YouTube channel linked here.

Lily and friends in the station via a screenshot from the show