Las Mujeres- Power Street Theater Company

The Take Away 

  • Every Latinx person in Philadelphia should be proud to know that our city is an artistic playground for plays like Las Mujeres
  • Latinas deserve more opportunities to share their stories and the stories of the incredible womxn that came before them
  • Power Street created a great sense of community

 

In My Pockets

I was first introduced to Power Street through Erlina, the playwright of Las Mujeres, while the two of us were working on a project together. I was really impressed with She Wores Those Shoes and Erlina’s voice as a playwright. As a Latino, I was particularly looking forward to seeing Latinx theatre, since, let’s be real, there ain’t that much in Philly no matter what these trendy “diversity panels” say.

Since I’m unloading my pockets, I also need to admit that I’m a bad Latino for not knowing Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and (Marga)Rita Hayworth until this play.

 

The Design

Since the set was an apartment, I didn’t need much from lights. I thought Ro Gauger did a great job creating an atmosphere of magical realism as Marlene is transported from our reality into the world of her dreams.

The lighting when Minerva Mirabel finally learns how she was brutally murdered by order of the evil Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo elevated the tension of the scene and Minerva’s tragic revelation.

I really want the colorful disco light that was used when the womxn had a dance party. I was not expecting to see the historical figures dancing to Soy Yo, but I’m glad I did.

The music for Las Mujeres was well selected! I was hooked from the moment Marlene played La Llorona on her record player. La Llorona is one of my favorite Latin American legends and I really appreciated how it introduced us to Marlene’s character. She could not cry even if she forcefully widened her eyes and listened to the most depressing song in the history of the Spanish language. Later, when Marlene finds what Lena had in her backpack, she weeps and becomes La Llorona.

Asaki Kurama’s costumes nailed the styles of each character’s historical moment. Added touches like Minerva’s butterflies in homage to her sisters really showed that Kurama paid attention to the most minute details. And Lena’s #newworldmatriarchy shirt was perfect!

The set fit the space extremely well. Using the structural pillars that already existed in the theatre to frame the walls of the set made for a seamless transition between the audience space and Marlene’s living room, although I was worried the wall with the door was going to come tumbling down each time the door was closed. The curtains that were rigged to be quickly and easily ripped off could have been less obvious and the stage magic better hidden. It made the satisfaction I was supposed to feel as Marlene tears the curtain off the rod a tad underwhelming.

I also found the projection to be questionable. I didn’t know if it was the aesthetic or a tech snafu that the projections were half on the bare wall and half on the floor of Marlene’s apartment but it made seeing the images difficult.

There was so many wine glasses on stage. It caused a handful of frantic “gotta-find-an-empty-glass-to-do-my-blocking-in-this-scene” moments! However it was fantastic to see Frida Kahlo offer Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz a shot of tequila!

 

Performances

What a stellar ensemble of Latinas that Power Street assembled for this production! They had fantastic chemistry with one another and personified these historical figures.

Krystal Lizz Rosa’s portrayal of Lena as a loud and proud social justice warrior made me wish she was my daughter. Krystal’s Lena was the perfect foil for Gabriela Sanchez’s Marlene. I really connected to her character, especially when Marlene discussed how she anglicized her name to better navigate her world, something that I absolutely related to! I have also gringo-fied my name throughout my life but have recently reclaimed it for the exact reasons as Marlene in this play. The scene put my struggle into words, and it felt great to be represented. 

Speaking of people that attempted to conform to the ideals of whiteness, Lorenza Bernasconi’s chilling portrayal of movie star Rita Hayworth was particularly vivid.

Marisol Custodio presented the Dominican revolutionary as fearless and loving. She reminded me of Snow White or a Disney princess. It made it even more shameful that an evil monster like Trujillo took someone as smart and nurturing as Minerva from our world.

My favorite on-stage duo was Daniela Rodriguez as artist Frida Kahlo and Anjoli Santiago as Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican nun, poet, and scholar. Frida’s over-the-top personality complimented Sor Juana’s calmness. The contrast made seeing them get cozy on a couch after smoking a joint together even more hilarious.

 

Unfortunately, the play lost its momentum after the bows when the cast announced that they would be presenting a slideshow of the womxn that supported them through the play’s process and in general. This wasn’t the ideal time and it dissipated the energy.  It was a tad awkward to sit through but as I watched the cast gaze admiringly at their role models, I also reflected on all the Latinas and womxn that I am thankful to know.

The Script

Ortiz created a unique voice for each character. It felt like she had exhumed their souls and let them tell the story that their art and biographies could not.  I felt like I was sitting around the dinner table chismeando with my tías and primas about the latest family gossip.

I wanted more Lena. Her character served as a bookend to incite Marlene’s dream about the dinner with las mujeres and wrap up the play and I would have liked to see more development. 

It is great to see empowering Latina roles exist where Latinas have access to complex and intelligent people that aren’t lazy stereotypes or generic maids or the punchline for a lame joke about their accent.
Accountability:

I had issues with Frida’s mobility. With so much controversy over the Frida Kahlo Barbie and celebrities saying that the death of Stephen Hawking “freed” him of his disability, I have problems with Frida being portrayed as able-bodied in this play. Frida developed polio at a young age and then when she was 18, she survived a near fatal bus crash that caused her to be disabled with a broken spine and pelvis. It was while she was bedridden that she began painting the self-portraits that we now see in museums and books. I wouldn’t have expected Frida’s movement vocabulary to include the flexibility to put her foot on furniture. It didn’t match the icon I knew and the life she lived. Ortiz does give Frida lines about terrible pains so I didn’t understand why she was moving around on her feet and standing so much.

Outside of this concern, Las Mujeres is a celebration of Latinidad. It made me feel more connected to mi gente and my history and thinking about how many other incredible historical Latinx figures I don’t know about.

Why didn’t I know about Rita Haywroth or Sor Juana before this play? What system prevented me from connecting to the fascinating lives of people just like me that have names that look and sound just like mine? Shouldn’t I have learned this at some point before now?

Advertisements

Ready Steady Yeti Go! – Azuka Theater

The Take Away

  • Fun environment
  • Young cast of talented performers
  • White playwright, white director, and story of white heroism in the face of racism

In Our Pockets

 

Bill

I know several of the key company members… I also interviewed for a design position with the production and didn’t get a call back.  I grew up as the summary’s protagonist, the only mixed kid in a white, wealthy, suburb who was dark skinned enough to be identified as “black”

Chris 

I’ve been reviewing plays in Philly for a decade, so I’m pretty jaded and dead-hearted. That makes me hard to delight. My three or four-times great grandmother was (subcontinental) Indian, but that aside I’m as white as can be.  Also, I had a mild headache coming into the theater.

 

The Design

Bill

The lighting served the piece well.  It didn’t entirely drive the mood, but there were some interesting notes and at no time did I feel like I was lost as to the setting even though I might have lost the thread of the passage of time.

 I felt like some of the sound cues, while good choices, would change the framing of the piece and confuse an already nebulous lens.

Chris

I’m generally irritated by movie-style soundbacking, but this was fairly unobtrusive.

Bill

The costumes are well handled, and take the piece to a place that’s current enough, but still out of time.  

Chris

The “adult” characters wore white outfits with sketch-on defining elements. That fit the youthful play and worked very well.

The set seemed to indicate a kids hideout in the woods, which is perhaps where this play — framed in total as a kids play within a play — took place. But it included a huge, unused closed room which took up a third of the stage.

Bill

The set didn’t serve the play or the space well at all.  It fell into the trap of both too messy and too clean, which can happen when you create repurposed-object-sets.  It also left the director with no center stage, which became a blocking problem in the scenes where Carly is literally being thrust into center stage and the set didn’t allow it.

Bill

No fight choreographer is listed.  They could’ve used one, which might have avoided a couple of moments of actual collision that were supposed to be close choreography.

The music choices were interesting, if a bit problematic.

Chris

How were they problematic?

Bill

They were cute poppy choices, but nothing that would represent a person of color.
Performances

Chris

This was a very young cast playing much younger characters, and they brought youthful energy and adult intelligence to the roles.

Bill

Alison Ormsby and Jenson Titus Lavallee brought different bodies and motivations to their egos and alter egos and I always knew who they were. 

Chris

All of the actors did well creating complete people onstage, but Ormsby and Lavallee had to bring out a lot of different characters, and they delineated each and provided many of the funniest moments. I saw Lavallee give a nuanced lead performance in Exile’s Guards at the Taj, and it was great to see he has a wide range.  

Bill

Kishia Nixon brought as much depth to a flatly written character as possible and handled what must have been a difficult process without making sacrifices.

Chris

That’s true, the script didn’t give too much depth to Carly. But Nixon filled in the gaps. 

Bill

Frank Nardi’s Goon was believable and lovable and a very fleshed-out performance. Adam Howard also brought a sensitivity to Gandry that left me wishing for a resolve that never came.
Direction

Chris

This was an entertaining 90 minutes, and we have to credit that to Allison Heishman as well as her cast.

Bill

However, the direction didn’t do anything to change my expectations for the script.  I was worried the whole thing would be a whole nesting doll of white guilt working itself out and it sorta was.

Chris

Based on the synopsis I assumed the piece would be directed by a black director.

Bill

It feels like a super-meta recreation of the play within the play.  In the play, a majority white suburban town takes on the process of building a platform to highlight the problem of racism, and then they stand on it themselves… the play itself depicts a majority white company in an urban town, taking on the process of building a platform to highlight the problem of racism and then standing on it themselves.

Chris

I think Heishman succeeded in creating a fun experience, but having her direct seemed like another filter removing the audience from the content. We have a story of racism told through the lens of a white bad boy, created by a white playwright, directed by a white director. 

Bill

Both the script and the direction put Carly, a black character, center stage, forcing her to comment on or share things with someone else’s words. Having Kasual Owens-Feilds, the black assistant director, forced centerstage to do talkbacks to a majority white audience with a majority white production staff and a white writer echoed that. 

I’m infuriated by this need that white production companies have to build up platforms for people of color and then take the credit for themselves.

The Script

 

Chris

Playwright David Jacobi sets himself the task of capturing the perspective of junior high school kids, and he really succeeds. We get the feeling that these are real kids, and we understand their naivete and self-importance more when we see it portrayed by adults.

There’s a lot in the script to amuse and entertain and it’s very much a play for the times. It’s crucial to see white writers tackle race without trying to be didactic or overwrought, even if those attempts end up demonstrating subtle racism. Which, I’d argue this does.

Some of the play’s funnier moments use Carly, a middle-school black girl, as a tool for a well-meaning white teacher to demonstrate her white heroism in the quest to “end racism forever.” The playwright is perceptive in exposing how white people use stories of racism to virtue signal, praise themselves, and wrest control of the struggle away from POC.

That makes it peculiar that the protagonist of the script is a white male, who makes a self-sacrifice of white heroism to help ease the town’s tensions in the wake of a racist incident. Part of his motivation is his nascent sexual desire for a black female. But the main reason is to protect another white male, his academically achieving brother, from facing the consequences of the brother’s racist actions, because this punishment would jeopardize the brother’s privileged social trajectory. This is problematic, and I didn’t see the script grappling with these problems.

There’s also a reveal that one of the minor characters is actually mixed race, but this is used very much as a plot device. There’s no investigation of why he would want to pass, or on his thoughts about the racial issues central to the plot.

I also didn’t quite get the meta-framing. We stayed for the talk back and the AD made clear that it’s supposed to be the kids themselves putting on a play of the actions which took place over the preceding semester. I’m not sure what this framing added to the script, except to further remove us from the real-life events. The writer also included an added layer of meta near the end when he has a character say “we’ll all be cut from the second draft… but maybe this is the third draft.” Who, then, is the writer of the play within the play? The white male? What are the potentially problematic consequences of this authorial role? Or is it a group effort by all the kids, who would cut themselves from their own story?

I’m ranting and nitpicking a script which produced 90 enjoyable minutes of theater, and I’m doing some of the same things I call David Jacobi out for by interjecting my commentary over the voice of my POC collaborator and signalling my own virtue in my “hashtag woke” analysis. Nevertheless, I get the sense that the playwright and company were self-congratulatory about the fact that they entered the current conversation on race with this work. So they deserve a well-rounded critique on their role in that conversation. I didn’t want to read any published criticism of the work until we talked, but I suspect it was absent, because we’re all a bunch of white reviewers.

Accountability:

Bill

This play was for the primarily white audiences and white production companies to exorcise some of their white guilt over the production calendar of Philadelphia theater.

As the narrative is about race relations in a majority white town Azuka did a fine job with representation in its casting.  But the cast is what it is because of the narrative. The production team includes more people of color than are usually invited to the table.  The real decision making positions were still held by white people though.

Despite my criticisms, I believe that this is a necessary play now.  We need to have these conversations and we need to do what we can to work on the pervasive nature of white guilt, microaggressions, and white savior complex.

 

 

Love, Lies and Taxidermy- Inis Nua

The Take Away

  • Strong design and direction

  • Engaging performances, with some ups and downs

  • Empty script without much context

  • A heavy reliance on film references that doesn’t translate to the stage

 

In My Pockets

This is the first show I saw with Inis Nua! I didn’t know anyone in the show, and was totally unfamiliar with their work.

 

The Design

The triumph of the set design were the taxidermied animals around the room which ranged from forest birds to an upright bear! Though I felt that these pieces were perhaps underutilized in the performance, having these dead animals watch the play with me was a bizarre but not unwelcome experience.

The show, staged in the round, featured a minimalist set where black boxes could be transformed into different playing spaces, which was versatile and effective.

Chris Haig designed a stage floor with small tiles that reminded me absurdly of bathroom tiles – they came together to form a picture of a small off-white path or river, which confused me. I suppose it could be a reference to a scene that comes at the very end of the play in a hotel bathroom, but this overt signaling was unclear until much later.

Zachary McKenna designed the sound, which, paired with lighting by Amanda Jensen, stood out as the strongest design element in the play. Sound helped us move from one fluid setting to another, and had a distinct character of its own. The costumes were not as versatile as the sound and the set, and contributed less to the actors ability to transform into the numerous characters they played.

 

Performances

 

Seth Reichgott (Jacub and others) delivered a very strong performance, and he had the most to do – performing as both main characters’ fathers with wildly different characterizations and internal struggles, as well as a number of other characters, both young and old.

Francesca Piccioni also held her own in her two main roles – Ash, the young romantic lead, and Valentyn’s mother.  I found myself more drawn to Joseph Teti (Valentyn) in the moments when he performed as supplementary characters, and relied more on physical characterization to convey the new role.

Direction

Tom Reing’s steady hand in this production was noticed and appreciated. Theater in the round is always such a tricky puzzle for directors, and with Reing’s staging, I never felt like I was cheated out of face time with the actors. Reing’s direction showed excellent handling of a difficult script. 

The Script

Written by Alan Harris in 2016, Love, Lies and Taxidermy relies on references to movies and the film world to create a sense of character. Maybe a recognizable three act structure grafted onto the stage  is bound to fall flat, or maybe that’s any rom-com. In any case, this constant head tick to movies made it impossible for me to get comfortable or grounded in the show’s world. Rather, I was left craving a more complete picture of this Welsh town, Merthyr Tydfill. 

I wished the script offered more context for Wales itself. For a play that claims to be so deeply entrenched in the Welsh experience, it imported most of it’s signposts from American movies. Perhaps this is to appeal to a larger audience, but it would be preferable to be immersed in a new culture. I don’t come to theater to feel at home, I come to the theater to see shared humanity, or to feel connected to a story that I don’t already know.

Accountability

Just like with any commercial romance, there were micro moments that deeply aggravated my feminist sensibilities, which makes it almost impossible for me to enjoy this kind of story.

Although the stakes came from Ash’s insistence on helping her father make money whatever way she could. When she is presented with an opportunity to make some cash -by appearing in a soft-core porn movie, her lover Valentyn is aghast and Ash herself is deeply anxious about it, changing her mind several times over during the course of the play. It was frustrating that Valentyn never engaged Ash in a conversation about the prospect. Instead,  “Don’t do the porn” was his common refrain every time he greeted her or said goodbye. It’s just as well, the play doesn’t want us to think very hard about this plot, or about the implications, just like it doesn’t want us to think a lot about the implications of Valentyn’s father stalking his mother across the world for the past 17 years.

However, the play did provide windows into the romantic lives of  middle aged characters, which was a treat because middle age + love is not something we often see in a romance. It’s what made Piccioni’s portrayal of Valentyn’s mother, Victoria, so awkward. Especially because of the age-appropriate casting against Seth Reichgott, I wondered why there wasn’t a fourth actor for Victoria’s role.

Overall, this is a script that isn’t totally interested in thinking a lot about the conversations it triggered.