Monday, November 16, 2015

Yemayá's Belly at Teatro Paraguas Lifts All Boats

Review by Frances Madeson; All images courtesy of the production
Every night you go to sleep, you lay down on your family's ashes. When you breathe it's your wife. When you walk you can feel her under your feet. When you breathe you don't know what's a burned blanket and what's your wife's skin. You can't tell if the ashes are from a book or your wife's hair.  –Scene 8, Yemayá's Belly

For New Yorkers alive during the events of September 11, 2001, this was the truly terrible thing unsaid as we went through our routines in the aftermath. How could we know, how could we tell, whose lifeless remains were mixed into the very particulate matter that one had no choice but to inhale? This was its own kind of horror, that in this very real and material sense there was no separation between those to whom 9/11 happened in the worst possible way, and the rest of us.

When only-child 11-year-old Jesus, the protagonist of Yemayá's Belly by Quiara Alegría Hudes, loses both his mami and his papi in a terrible and sudden inferno in Magdalena, his personal twin towers fall all the way down. Orphaned and destitute, he flees to the nearest city where he's temporarily sheltered by a compassionate shopkeeper before embarking on an ill-conceived voyage to an illusory America. It's hard not to read the play, which won the 2003 Clauder Prize, as a fledgling but undeveloped post-9/11allegory. But unfortunately even these undertows rippling toward issues of the utmost gravitas do not buoy our interest in this precious, sometimes preposterous, debut play, whose creator would go on to win a Pulitzer for later work.

And yet, consistently interesting things have been happening at Teatro Paraguas all summer and fall, and the October 2015 production of Yemayá's Belly was no exception. Those who were deterred by the savage reviews that past productions  have received“gut-souring” “hackneyed” “not all that magical”missed the chance to see a skilled local company grappling with a seriously flawed text, at times navigating toward some moments of extraordinary fullness and freshness and then at others, frankly, listing astern rather than forward.

Kana Gaines and Sabrina Garcia
Perhaps the greatest joy of  the production was witnessing Kana Gaines immerse herself in the pants role, the 28-year-old actress dissolving into the boy on the verge of a premature sink-or-swim pubescence. She played this child propelled by external circumstances to a nascent manhood with an almost uncanny naturalness and fluidity. Her performance was reminiscent of some of Anna Deveare Smith's portrayals of young male characters in Fires in the Mirror or Twilight, characterizations that Smith shaped by dramatically altering her physicality—personality and psychology grounded in the finely articulated body language.  

In Gaines' case she played Jesus as an agile if gangly-limbed Dennis the Menace whose mental alertness and mischief-making were inextricably bound up with his dexterity and nimbleness. And as delightful as it was to watch the rambunctious boy gamboling across the spare stage to ascend a coconut tree, some of Gaines' most sublime moments were grounded in a concentrated quietude, moments when we got to watch Jesus at rest, sometimes at the feet of the adults, listening and actively thinking. Thoughts registering in tiny movements in the facial musculature or brightness in the whites of the eyes as he reckoned at first how best to win at dominoes, and later how to transcend catastrophic loss. 

Argos MacCallum, Jonathan Harrell and Ms.Gaines
Alix Hudson, a fine bi-lingual actress, passionate poet and produced playwright in her own right, directed the play and designed its set and audio effects. It is one of this production's great strengths that she slowed time down enough to let us watch thoughts bubble up and take hold of Jesus and propel his surprising decisions about when to lie, when to pretend, what's worth stealing, which risks one might chance taking. It's so rare to be allowed to watch someone very much in need of a wisdom that might guide a necessary cunning obtain it by connecting the dots right before our eyes. 

It's perhaps counter-intuitive that an unevenly written script would benefit from more onstage time; a more clever director might have found ways to move the action briskly along in the hopes the lapses in quality might go unnoticed in the hurry to the curtain call. But Hudson's not merely clever; she's better than that. She saw possibilities in the material that others have not, and had a certain kind of faith in her actors' abilities to fascinate just by being themselves. In the main, she was not wrong.

But the odd directorial flub also became evident in the fullness of the breath. What's a flub in my lexicon? It's a missed opportunity to communicate something vital. In Scene 6, Jesus is tending Mami as she lays wrecked and not long for this world, rubbing ointments on her soon-to-be fatal burns. Hudes has written a fantasy moment in which mother and son share a lullaby and a dance before Mami glides off to the afterworld:
I'm going to the sea/To meet my secret love/If she remembers me/The sun/The sun/The sun/I'll sing her all my songs/And as her songs are sung/I'll dance within her waves/The sun/The sun/The sun/The sun lives at the edge of the sea/The sun says she will wait there for me/The sun/I'm going to the sea/To argue with the rain/And when the clouds are gone/The sun/The sun/The sun
Hudes doesn't provide music for the prosaic lyrics, but she does provide clues contextualizing this lullaby. Jesus says to Mami: “You should eat,” He tries feeding her but there's no response. “I'll sing you a song. How about the one we used to sing on the farm and try to bother papi while he worked. When he was grumpy.”

One can imagine all kinds of cadences and tunes for this sunny ditty they used to sing to cheer up papi, and that Jesus now wishes to reprise to revitalize his mami. The least likely perhaps being the one chosena melody of melancholia, which under the circumstances pushed the encounter towards bathos, reinforced by the equally bathetic dance, a perfunctory waltz. By contrast, that moment begged for a more Caribbean-inflected tune and a confident Latin dance. It struck me as both a temperamental and esthetic misread to depart from this family's own cultural milieu for an alien solace. As a result the scene, like Mami herself, was more or less dead on arrival.   

The underwritten role of Mami (only eight lines before she's killed off in the big fire) was played by Roxanne Tapia, who is arguably one of Santa Fe's most acutely sensitive and expressive actresses. But in some sense her hands were tied because of the dirgelike melody and nonrhythmic dance, and she was almost forced to radiate or exude a kind of vague maternal caring in the very moment when her character could have been actively expressing a complex and nuanced non-verbal goodbye. Or rather, adios. Adios to her body, adios to her only son, adios to her own abruptly snuffed-out life.

Roxanne Tapia and Kana Gaines
In her second role as Lila, the caring but practical shopkeeper who shelters Jesus in the city after the fire, Tapia communicated the contradictory impulses at play—dearly wanting to help an unprotected child, but not really in a position to take on this grave responsibility—in a single gesture. An embrace that simultaneously offered a moment of comfort to a new orphan, while holding him just slightly at a distance.

Sabrina Garcia, recently returned to Santa Fe after an eight-year stint in Manhattan, played the dual roles of Yemayá, the Santaria mother of the oceans, and Maya, the slightly more experienced girl with whom Jesus sets off to sea. We're lucky to have her back in New Mexico. The Yemayá speech is perhaps some of the least enjoyable and most oppressively bland writing in the play:

Remember me like you remember your ancestors
memory more vast than your human years
Search back to the treasures in your birth
and find me there...

and so on. But bless her heart, somehow she delivered the lines without rolling her eyes, and she looked very beautiful in her ocean mama costume replete with seashell headband.    

Gaines and Garcia
In her hands Maya was played with a delicacy just under the surface of the bossy take-charge teenager. Delicacy enacted in the way she ate the Spam (which was redolent in the small theater) just touching her finger to the “meat.” Delicacy too in her approach to the kiss between Jesus and Maya, which could have been embarrassingly smarmy, but thankfully was not. Quite the opposite, there was a touch of sweetness. It evoked other theatrical teenage kisses: not so much the passion of Eros between Romeo and Juliet, but the ardor for life of Anne Frank and Peter Van Daan.  

Argos MacCallum mesmerized us as Tico, described in the cast list by Hudes simply as “a man who hacks open coconuts.” Hude has written Tico an almost impossibly obtuse soliloquy absurdly delivered to a coconut shell filled with rice (at least Hamlet got to talk to a skull), which despite his empty belly he has not cooked and eaten:
This rice is my wife's ashes. I'll remember her voice that way. Her cooking. Her beautiful skin. Her dark skin. Her mulata hair in braids. She is not ashes. She is rice. I'll speak to her through the rice. Here's her heart. She can be so soft and so hard. Here's her body, and she doesn't have to be buried. I can carry her by my side.
Hudes writes what she calls a “ritual” for Tico, in which he pours the rice over his head, and collapses to the floor:
He kneels to the ground and touches the rice around him. He lies on the ground, on top of the rice. He spots one grain of rice, puts it in his mouth and swallows it whole.

What can I say about this moment? To his great credit, MacCallum somehow disconnected from the demand that these words be infused with meaning (something to do with his wife's faith, she was a holy roller) and went for broke allowing grief to electrify and contort his body so bizarrely but with such total commitment that one just chalked these arbitrary words up to a seizure of madness in which Tico doesn't quite know what he's saying. And it doesn't matter, because what's been communicated surpasses the gibberish.

In a (coco) nutshell, MacCallum slayed it.  

Jonathan Harrell, who played Jesus' uncle Jelin, also dug deep to overcome the trite expository passage written for his character as he and Jesus prepare Mami's grave.
When my mother died, your father and I dug the grave. Our father, your grandfather, he tried to help but he was crying the whole time. He dug with his back to us so we couldn't see. We could tell. His eyes were red and puffy. When he died your father and me dug the grave. Just the two of us. We didn't march through town. We didn't have money to pay the priest. But after the fire, I buried your father alone. But I thought you should be here for your mother. She would like that. Sometimes you have to be like my father was. You want to cry but you turn your back and hide it. You don't let the world see.

He soon punctuates this heavy-handed and lachrymose life lesson with a slap to Jesus (written in by Hudes). A lesser actor might've thrown up his hands in despair, but Harrell tapped into some inner source of outrage and found a way to justify hurting a child in the midst of burying his own mother. Harrell recently played Happy in Ironweed Productions presentation of Death of A Salesman at Santa Fe Playhouse, and it is one of my biggest regrets of this theater season that I missed his performance in that classic. I look forward with great eagerness to his next star turn.

Garcia and Gaines
So much about the direction of the play, particularly the vivid and full-bodied actorial choices that Hudson helped her actors to discover and fulfill, was exciting, especially in those moments when they transcended the obvious limitations of the text. The humble setsome few risers, some sand, a few crates and stools, arranged against a watery blue backdrop were adequate to suggest the various settings as they changed from exterior to interior, rural to urban, land to sea. The propsa coffee cup, feather, a box of well-used dominoes, an aged barrel full of rice, a worn machete–all looked as if they were plucked from the farmhouses of an authentic agrarian village. One cannot help but think what good use this company could make of more substantial  resources to adorn the heart of what makes Teatro Paraguas so enlivening as they fulfill their mission of bringing the works of Hispanic, Latino and New Mexican literary artists to the stageits extraordinary talent pool.

Skip Rapoport designed the show's lighting with artistry. It was a pleasure to let one's eye wander around Jesus' world and occasionally settle on the sparkly flashes of mica in the sand. Beautiful to land upon these starry reminders of our origins. Beauty perhaps not adequately transfixing to keep Jesus rooted to Magdalena, but by all means sufficient to keep theater audiences wholeheartedly rooting for Teatro Paraguas.