A view of triangular lives

By Iride Aparicio

Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

ZACHARY PRINCE as Vincenzo & MEGAN McGinnis as Sarah
      ZACHARY PRINCE as Vincenzo & MEGAN McGinnis as Sarah

PALO ALTO, CA – Near the end of a work day, on Saturday, March 25, l911, in New York City, the three top floors of the ten-story Asch Building, where the “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory” was housed, were engulfed in flames. The fire was controlled quickly; extinguished in about half and hour, but it is considered one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of the City. There were two reasons why this fire was so deadly: one was that the factory, who employed immigrant women some as young as 13 years old, did not have fire extinguishers or automatic sprinklers. The other that the factory’s owner, afraid that the factory's workers could steal items from the factory, kept all the workers locked inside.  

When the fire started, the foreman who held the only door key to the factory, had already escaped. Outside the building's windows, the only single exterior fire escape had collapsed from the fire’s heat and from the weight of all those trying to escape. So, for those who remained inside, there was no way out. The flames were approaching them, and the fire, presumably caused by a worker dropping a cigarette on scraps of sewing material on the floor, kept burning because the Fire Department’s ladders and their hoses where too short and could not reach higher than the six floor.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the factory’s owners,  were able to escape via the roof of the building onto neighboring roofs, but the factory’s workers  remained locked inside a floor being consumed by the flames second by second. Outside the building, on the street, as people looked up at the lapping flames, they were horrified to see girl after girl approaching a window engulfed in flames, pausing for a second, and then leaping to their death into the pavement below.

Ultimately, 146 factory workers perished on that day from burns, from asphyxiation or from jumping into the street from the 9th floor. The owners were indicted on charges of first-and second degree manslaughter, and later acquitted, but committees on Public Safety and the Factory Investigating Commission passed laws to prevent future disasters of that type. Those laws led to and extensive modernization of the state’s legislation regarding labor and fire safety of the factories in New York. (From the factory’s fire information written in the production’s program by  Syche Phillips)


In  2005,  when CURTIS  MOORE, was invited to write a piece for the Williamstown Theatre Festival at the O’Neill Theater Center Music Theater Conference in Connecticut, he wrote the music for a musical play based on the fire. He called the work, “TRIANGLE.” The book of the musical was written by THOMAS MIZER, CURTIS MOORE & JOSHUA SCHER,    

And maybe because the fire occurred in a triangular building in New York City, inside the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, “TRIANGLE,” the musical, uses often the number three in its dramatical structure. Its set, which represents the building, is triangular in shape. Its main characters are three:  Brian (ROSS LEKITES) a young scientist working in a medical office located on the ninth floor of the Asch building, the floor where the factory was located one hundred years ago. At the play’s opening,  Brian's love interest is Cynthia, (SHARON  RIETKERK.) a brilliant medical student who works in the same building but in a different floor.  ( Picture above shows Sarah and Vincenso, McGINNIS) and PRINCE, saying goodbye to each other before she jumps to her death.)
The third character is  Ben (ZACHARY PRINCE) a handsome young stranger who arrives at Brian’s office on the day of the building's (which is now a New York University) Memorial Celebration of the hundredth Anniversary of the fire. Because of it, through an open window, we can hear the voice of the Master of ceremonies. on the first floor, is reading aloud the names of those who perished on that day.

Ben, who is carrying a ring, hanging from a chain, with  a love inscription written in Italian, tells Brian that the piece of jewelry belonged to his grandmother who was not in the fire, but had told him the story of a couple, who perished inside the burning factory that nobody was able to identify.

Those who were outside looking up, saw them from the window. A man leading a young girl to the window by the hand. They stopped at the window and kissed, and then,the man, still holding the woman by her hand, led her to the window sill, lowered her fragile body outside the window gently and as she dangle over the street from the 9th floor, the man opened his hand, and let her go.

( Picture above-left shows Sarah and Vincenso, McGINNIS) and PRINCE, saying goodbye to each other before she jumps to her death.)

The story impressed Brian so much that he decides that he is going to find out who this girl (one those people who were never identified during the fire) was.

And in his frantic search, Brian is helped by the Ghosts of the past, that emerge from the walls and that he begins to see. Another group of three: Inside the factory, one hundred years ago, Brian meet Sarah ( MEGAN McGINNIS) a young Jewish seamstress that is so fast doing her work that she had attracted the attention of her Forman Vincenzo (PRINCE) and the hatred of his Italian sister Theresa (LAURA D’Andre) who warns him about “forbidden” love, in this case a love between a Jewish girl and an Italian Man.

And inside Sarahs house, there is another triangle: this one composed by her family: herself, Chaya (RIETKERK) her pregnant sister,  and their father Isaac (ROLF SAXON) who in reverse prejudice, is enraged that her Jewish-raised daughter has, apparently fallen in love with an Italian man. And as Brian tries to help Ben unravel the story of the ring in a chain, another triangle develops in his life, and he too, finds himself facing a "forbidden" love and forced to decide if he is going to accept the importance of the “moment” or the lost of the one you love.

l-r Sarah, (MCGINNIS) Chaya (RIETKERK) and Vincenzo (PRINCE) 
l-r Sarah, (MCGINNIS) Chaya (RIETKERK) and Vincenzo (PRINCE)

Masterfully directed by MEREDITH McDONOUGH the musical, which may be called an opera because most of its dialogue is sung, uses two types of music (Composed by MOORE) to identify the segments from the present (more modern harmonies) from the segments of the past (more romantic melodies) which are interchanged during the play. All the music is pleasant, but none of the songs is memorable, maybe because none of the songs are repeated. The action, which is dramatic at times, is realistic and very well acted in the dual roles of most of the principal characters. The lyrics are well vocalized and,when singing,  the voices are tuned.

In its structure, however, the play has flaw. In the story of the fire published in the work's program, it says that the only person who had a key to the factory was the foreman. In TRIANGLE the musical, the foreman of the factory was Vincenzo, and If he have had the key, the tragedy could not have happened.

With the “Ghosts” the story based on history, this work has lot of tension in its plot. It is interesting enough to keep the audience glued to their seats wondering what will happen in the next scene. Sadly, the writers did not prepare the audience for the  ending in which Brian finally brakes his triangle. It comes too abruptly for the audience to be able to understand it.

L-R Brian (LEKITES and Ben (PRINCE)
L-R Brian (LEKITES and Ben (PRINCE)

THE TRIANGLE will continue playing at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo alto until August 2. for ticket call (650) 463-l960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.