Richard Baird (with Amanda Schaar in background) in "An Iliad." Photo by Aaron Rumley
It’s tragic that “An Iliad,” an indictment of all wars told through the prism of the Trojan War, is still so damned relevant, so agonizingly current 10 years almost to the date of its first-ever performance.
In North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of the one-person drama by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, Ukraine is name-dropped, the invasion by Russia and ensuing war being just the latest in a terrifying world history of wars. The list of bloody conflicts is long, and its breathless, passionate recital by Richard Baird as The Poet in the NCR production is when “An Iliad” feels like punch after punch to the breadbasket.
I’ve seen the play a couple of times before, its having been staged by La Jolla Playhouse in 2012 and five years later by New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. I’ve never swooned over it the way some critics have. It can be as exhausting for the audience as it is for the actor onstage.
It might have been the timing, concurrent with the bloodshed in Ukraine, that magnetized me this time around. It might have been Baird’s no-holds-barred performance, a mix of oratory, explosiveness and nuance. Whatever the reason, this staging of “An Iliad” directed by David Ellenstein is urgent theater.
“An Iliad” is, of course, an adaptation of Homer’s epic account of the Trojan War. It’s populated by familiar figures such as opposing warriors Achilles and Hector, Helen of Troy, Agamenmon the king, and both Greek gods and goddesses. Over an hour and a half, the Poet (Baird) portrays these and more, interspersing the events of the decade-long Trojan War with more contemporary warfare references.
The imagery of “An Iliad,” particularly in its recounting of battle scenes and Achilles’ confrontation with Hector, is graphic and brutal. As it should be. War is graphic and brutal.
The other presence in the play is an accompanying cellist, performing behind a scrim. At North Coast Rep that’s Amanda Schaar. The strafing of notes echoes the flailing of swords.
In this play, the demands on the actor’s endurance, physicality and powers of memorization are prodigious. Baird accepts the challenge and, like Achilles, proceeds full force. Perhaps it’s good this is a limited-run engagement (through April 10). Performances like Baird’s would seem to require major recovery time. That speaks highly of his commitment to the production and the role.
I wish an end to the war in Ukraine.
I wish an end to the list in “An Iliad.”
"An Iliad" runs through April 10 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
Catalina Maynard and Christian Haines in "Water by the Spoonful." Karli Cadel Photography
In Quiara Alegria Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful,” dissonance is expressed as a backdrop through the “free jazz” of John Coltrane. Onstage, it palpitates in the head of Iraq War veteran Elliot Ortiz, who is plagued by PTSD from wars foreign and, you could say, domestic.
The Pulitzer-winning “Water by the Spoonful” is the second play in Hudes’ “Elliot Trilogy.” (The others are “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” and “The Happiest Song Plays Last.) It's a simmering tale of battling demons and struggling for connections.
Cygnet Theatre’s production of “Water by the Spoonful” directed by Meg DeBoard comes eight years after the Old Globe last staged it locally. While the story’s online chat room device feels dated, the repercussions of war, as we know all too well, are not.
Hudes, who also wrote the book for “In the Heights,” is adept at creating characters about whom we quickly care. In “Water” besides the tormented Elliot, there are his supportive cousin Yaz and the inhabitants of a crack addiction recovery chat room: “Orangutan,” “Chutes & Ladders,” “Fountainhead” and the facilitator, “HaikuMom.” It’s the latter, a woman named Odessa, who is the bridge between the chat room dramas and Elliot’s plight.
At times, as when Elliot is stalked by his ghosts (one in particular) or fighting to process his pain, the intensity of “Water By the Spoonful” is off the charts. The chat room scenes begin as cathartic escapes but when the play’s conflicts converge it’s sit-forward time in the theater.
Cygnet’s cast, right down the line, is up to the task, starting with Steven Lone’s steely, haunted Elliot. Melissa Ortiz, making her Cygnet debut, is genuine and affecting as Yaz.
It’s great to see Catalina Maynard, who’s delivered so many stellar performances at the San Diego Rep and at the bygone ion theatre to name two, at Cygnet. Her portrayal of Odessa, Elliot’s birth mother, is wrenching.
Credit to the chat-room denizens as well: Emily Song Tyler (“Orangutan”), Bryan Barbarin (“Chutes & Ladders”) and Christian Haines (“Fountainhead”). “Water by the Spoonful” is much more than about trying to overcome a terrible addiction. But that’s a critical part of it, and through these three we’re reminded that there is no prototypical addict’s story, no one way out of the darkness.
With its production earlier this year of “Life Sucks” and now “Water by the Spoonful,” Cygnet already has much to be proud of.
"Water by the Spoonful" runs through April 24.
Ari Afsar (left) in "Bhangin' It: A Bangin' New Musical." Photo by Rich Soublet II
Make no mistake, the allure of La Jolla Playhouse’s “Bhangin’ It: A Bangin’ New Musical” is the Punjabi folk dance bhangra. Its propulsive beats and rhythmic beauty are likely to stay with you long after you’ve forgotten the story around wrapped around them, about the lead-up to an intercollegiate bhangra competition. There is one song ,“Toledo,” that touches on the very real issue of cultural expectations, but the storytelling of this world premiere is secondary to the energy of the music and dancing onstage, which are bangin’.
“Bhangin’ It” was originally intended for the Playhouse’s 2020-’21 season, which was waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the musical, created by Mike Lew and spouse Rehana Lew Mirza (book) and Sam Willmott (music), and directed by Stafford Arima, is winding up the theater’s abbreviated returned-to-the-stage season, following “The Garden” and “To The Yellow House.” The vibrant choreography by Rujuta Vaidya and breathtaking costumes by Linda Cho instill absolute joy in the Mandell Weiss Theatre.
The presence onstage of dhol and tabla performer Deep Singh complements a spirited orchestra in the pit.
Now, as to that tale of the battling students at fictitious East Lansing University in Michigan: It happens that Mary (the likable Ari Afsar) has been forced out of the Tigres bhangra ensemble for daring to want to add to its repertoire dance steps honoring the mother she lost. Chief among her detractors – and the Tigre who forces Mary out – is Preeti (Vinithra Raj), who doesn’t hide her contempt for the fact that Mary is only “half Indian.”
With the complicity of her college pal Sunita (Jaya Joshi), the industrious Mary decides to recruit dancers for her own bhangra troupe, who come to be known as the Wood Ducks. The volunteers are unlikely candidates. They include a White professor at the university (Jason Heil), the questionably coordinated Noah (Henry Walter Greenberg), a dashing DJ (Brandon Contreras), a basketballer (Terrance Johnson) and snarky, political-minded Sunita. When they all realize that they need a bhangra teacher, too, they enlist the owner of a restaurant (Alka Nayyar), who puts them to work in her kitchen … though there’s method to her management.
The first act culminates with a food fight between the Tigres and the Wood Ducks that lays waste to restaurateur Rekha’s Samosa Hut. This may be “typical” college behavior, but it feels rather trite as a climax.
While Mary’s devotion to her mother manifests itself in the musical’s loveliest dance number, and her standing up for her cultural identity is certainly a noble plot point, I never felt fully invested in “Bhangin’ It,” least of all in which side would win the big bhangra competition. What I wanted was dancing and drumming. The more the better.
There is a splashy Bollywood-type number in Act 2, “Commit,” and the post-curtain performances are roof-raising. The rest gets us where we need to go, but it’s two and a half hours’ worth of getting there.
The “Bhangin’ It” cast is working hard and having fun. That’s clear. Besides Afsar, who was born in San Diego and is a UCLA grad, there’s Contreras, who enjoys chemistry with her during their “Toledo” number. This narrative possibility is not explored further. Nayyar is a memorable presence as Rekha, whose part, too, could have been given more complexity.
In the end, “Bhangin’ It” doesn’t nail it. It does entertain.
“Bhangin’ It” runs through April 17 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre.
Brian Rivera (left) and Jerome Beck in "The Great Khan." Photo by Rich Soublet
As a teacher, if I had a student who, given the assignment to write a paper on Mongol warrior Genghis Khan, instead wrote a gangsta rap song about him, something that he clearly put his whole heart and soul into, I’d be elated. That’s what learning should be all about: making knowledge your own.
Unfortunately for 16-year-old Jayden in Michael Gene Sullivan’s “The Great Khan,” his Genghis rap is dismissed by his mother as messing around. That’s only one of the frustrations young Jayden (Jerome Beck) endures in this rolling world premiere production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre directed by Jess McLeod.
There’s high school in general. His mother (Brittney M. Caldwell), who works overnights for the U.S. Postal Service, has moved them to a new neighborhood after Jayden prevented the attack of a teen girl (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew) and in the process incurred the sworn vengeance of the would-be assailants. In the new school, Jayden, who is Black, is outnumbered and in his mind out of place. In history class in particular, he is compelled by his over-solicitous White teacher, Mr. Adams (Dylan John Seaton), to study what Jayden sees as White history made by old White guys.
Jayden would rather retreat to the imagined safety of his bedroom and play combat video games.
What safety? The girl he rescued, Ant, comes through his window pointing a gun at him, demanding he acknowledge that she didn’t require rescuing in the first place.
What’s a frightened, frustrated Black teenager in a racially unjust world to do?
The larger-than-life (and, we learn, misunderstood) persona of Genghis Khan, who rose from slave to emperor in the early 13th century, provides the answer.
Beck is awesome as Jayden, balancing the character’s anger over injustice with both his fear and insecurity over his future and a burning desire to be strong in the face of come-what-may. (Even in a hoodie-onesie, however, he doesn’t look like a 16 year old.) His scenes with Bartholomew are the play's most affecting, particularly those when each lowers their guard.
The theatrical device of “The Great Khan” is the appearance of the Mongol warrior himself (Brian Rivera, making us hopefully forget the ludicrous memory of John Wayne in the role in “The Conqueror”), who like Ant comes through Jayden’s bedroom window. Or we’re led to believe he does. Whether the time Genghis Khan spends with Jayden – playing video war games, comparing personal stories of conflict and oppression, learning from each other – is real or not isn’t the point. Jayden emerges empowered.
Jayden’s enlightenment and empowerment might have happened even without a Genghis Khan materialization, for he learns during the two-hour play about himself and what he's capable of through his wise and loving mother, through the contemplative Ant, and through his ardent personalizing of the Genghis Khan he reads about.
We all recognize that the theater needs young audiences. For high school seniors or college students, “The Great Khan” is a great place to start. It’s intelligent and thought-provoking but also a helluva lot of fun.
“The Great Khan” runs through March 27 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre downtown.
Janet Dacal and Sasson Gabay in "The Band's Visit." Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade
When I first saw “The Band’s Visit” three years ago at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, I realized afterward that I’d seen a wonderful show -- a little musical about a lot of little things, a story with heart that would stay with me maybe forever.
Seeing “The Band’s Visit” again this week at the Civic Theatre, where a national touring production of the Tony winner runs is under way, I felt the same way afterward: moved and uplifted.
Then as now, “The Band’s Visit’s” main character, Dina, who runs a café in a village in Israel where nothing much ever happens, tells us that the tale to come is “not important.” It wouldn’t seem so, either, on the surface: A uniformed police orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, turns up by mistake in Dina’s town. With no bus heading out until the next day, the musicians are stranded. Dina, who is lonely and starving for any excitement, anything different, takes them in.
So do the people of Petah Tikva.
What unfolds over 95 minutes may not be important or life-changing, but this is where those aforementioned little things are addressed and where they matter.
Dina (Janet Dacal), who like everyone else in Petah Tikva is always “Waiting” (the show’s scene-setting opening song) for something beyond the endless passing days in the desert, finds in visiting orchestra conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay, who played the role in the original film version of “The Band’s Visit” that inspired the musical) an enigmatic but quietly reflective man who strangely fascinates her. He may not be the “Omar Sharif” (Dina’s wistful ballad) of her daydreams and Friday afternoon movies, but for a day and an evening he is her escape.
Tewfiq it turns out has a darker past than his laconic, military manner suggests, and through Dina his vulnerability emerges as much as it can.
Young villager Papi (Coby Getzug), meanwhile, is smitten with Julia (Layan Elwazani), but terrified of even talking to women. “Papi Hears the Ocean” is his hilarious lament to the worldly wise visiting trumpet player Haled (the terrific Joe Joseph), who afterward advises him in the jazzy “Haled’s Song About Love.”
In the household of Itzik (Clay Singer) and Iris (Kendal Hartse), not even the presence of a new baby can quell the discord between the two. It takes a band member’s unfinished concerto turned into a lullaby to bring if not reconciliation, then respite from the pain.
And alone in the village, a young man (Joshua Grosso) waits and waits and waits by a public telephone booth for a call from his true love.
This all adds up to … life. That’s the magic of “The Band’s Visit,” which touches without wallowing in sentiment and which relies on the humanity of its characters to help us recognize our own.
But what makes “The Band’s Visit” soar is its music: the memorable David Yazbek score that includes not only “Omar Sharif” and “Haled’s Song About Love” but the beautiful “Answer Me” that begins with the Telephone Guy alone, waiting, and comes to include the rest of the cast.
The Middle Eastern music performed by the ensemble band – Yoni Avi Battat, Roger Kashou, Brian Krock, Kane Mathis and Wick Simmons – is the real soundtrack of this show. Hearing it transports you to another time and place, somewhere perhaps you never knew existed inside you.
With as talky a book as “The Band’s Visit” possesses, it is subject to the Civic Theatre’s less than hospitable acoustics for dialogue. It’s great that so many people are getting the chance to see this musical, probably for the first time, but I couldn’t help but wish it were being produced in a more intimate venue.
No matter. “The Band’s Visit” is a treasure. See it while you still have the chance. It closes on Sunday, March 6.
Jessica John, dancing up a storm as Beverly, in "Abigail's Party." Photo by Daren Scott
In the British comedy of manners (both good and bad) “Abigail’s Party” the party isn’t Abigail’s at all. She’s a 15-year-old having a bash next door to the affair her mum is attending – enduring would be more like it. The hostess of that party is Beverly Moss, who is rabid that everyone under the roof of her London flat has a good time. Especially herself.
Always ones for a lively bit of fun, Backyard Renaissance has chosen Mike Leigh’s often-produced 1977 play to kick off its seventh season. Company co-founders Jessica John and Francis Gercke, playing hostess-with-the-mostest (the most booze and cigarettes maybe) Beverly and her buttoned-up spouse Laurence, lead a cast of five at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center downtown. Liliana Talwatte and Carter Piggee portray Angela and Tony, the new neighbors invited over to be plied with drinks and unsolicited advice. Michelle Marie Trester is Sue, the older, more staid neighbor (and that aforementioned mother of Abigail, remember).
The lengthy first act is spent mainly with the principals sitting around Beverly and Laurence’s living room, decorated for garish ‘70s authenticity by Tony Cucuzella with retro furniture, a Princess phone and a phonograph used throughout the play as a source of antagonism between the unhappily marrieds. There are loads of intentionally uncomfortable silences and passive aggressions from Beverly. But the pace is languid. The apparent climax of Act I is Sue throwing up – fortunately offstage.
As everything revolves around the narcissistic Beverly, “Abigail’s Party,” which is directed by Rosina Reynolds, is most dynamic when Jessica John is on her feet: solo dancing to records by Donna Summer, Tom Jones or Demis Roussos, or determinedly fetching refill after refill of cocktails from the bar.
The second act flares with multiple confrontations and some dark comedy that becomes high drama, all to the beat of the muffled music emanating from the teenagers’ unseen reveling next door.
Leigh most certainly instilled some commentary on social class and upward mobility in his script, which also became a popular BBC television movie. If, however, a lesson was supposed to have been learned by (mostly) Beverly at play’s end, it’s not at all clear.
The Backyard Renaissance ensemble gamely carries this tale to its conclusion. John, always entertaining, has the showy role of course. Trester, the next most interesting on stage, manifests that very British --and very appropriate for the goings-on in “Abigail’s Party” -- quiet desperation.
A little credit, too, to dialect coach David Huber. The actors, especially Gercke, sound British enough to make you long for a cup of tea. Or in this case, a gin and tonic.
"Abigail's Party" runs through March 19 at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center downtown.
Jesse J. Perez and Zilah Mendoza in "El Borracho." Photo by Jim Cox
El Borracho – the drunk – is one of the images on a loteria card played in a kind of Mexican bingo. He’s on his feet, barely, and waving around a bottle of tequila. A good-time, party character, right?
Wrong, as anyone haunted by a loved one’s alcoholism will tell you.
That’s what makes the Old Globe’s production in the round of Tony Meneses’ “El Borracho” so engrossing, yet so uneasy to watch at times. Raul (Jesse J. Perez) is deteriorating and dying after a lifetime of unchecked alcoholism and he’s doing so in the home of his ex-wife Alma (Zilah Mendoza) where any happy memories are drenched in booze and despair. The third figure in the drama is son David (Matthew Martinez), who is torn between wanting to still love his father and wanting to retreat to his own life away from the claustrophobic one-bedroom apartment. Obligation is at war with conscience, revulsion at war with duty, disillusionment at war with love. On top of that, David has a secret, one he fears to share with his father, though he knows he must. Time is short.
Edward Torres knows how to maximize the Globe’s intimate Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre well, having previously directed both “Water By the Spoonful” and “Native Gardens” here. “El Borracho’s” space is a dark little world into which the audience is immersed. The modest apartment (kitchen, living room with sleeper sofa, dining area) feels inescapable for all members of the family. The set by David Israel Reynoso is surrounded by liquor bottles. Lots of them. I haven’t seen so many since I agonized through the film “Leaving Las Vegas” with Nic Cage. That discomfort returned, more viscerally, in the environment of live theater.
There are a few humorous moments in “El Borracho,” and the opening-night audience responded to them with more laughter than I could muster. I’ve never found drunkenness funny. Even Raul’s costumed, guitar-playing performance near the end of the play left me cold, its dramatic intentions notwithstanding.
As balls out as Perez’s performance is as Raul, I was most affected by Mendoza’s quieter turn as Alma. While the script emphasizes son David’s internal complications and relationship to his disintegrating father, it’s really Alma, living under the same roof with Raul and having a much longer history with him in every way, who’s most deeply suffering regret, resentment, fear and more. Yet Mendoza never overplays her hand. She is the Other that is subject to so many alcoholism-racked families’ distress and misery.
Alma’s pet birds in a cage is a too-obvious metaphorical device. She’s trapped enough as it is.
“El Borracho” strives to convey tenderness, elusive as it is when anger is so understandably predominant and surrender so tempting. That is the alcoholic home.
They are everywhere.
“El Borracho” runs through March 20 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
Ramona Keller and Kevin Isola in "Trouble in Mind." Photo by Rich Soublet II
As I sat in the Old Globe Theatre audience during a performance of Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind,” I was reminded of the current Brian Flores story. The African-American fired head coach of the Miami Dolphins is suing the National Football League and three of its teams alleging racial discrimination in the hiring and retaining of Black coaches. In taking a stand for himself and others, Flores could be committing career suicide, at least in terms of head coaching an NFL franchise anytime soon or ever again.
In Childress’ 1955 play-within-a-play, African-American actress Wiletta Mayer defies the director of a white playwright’s “Chaos in Belleville,” the story of which culminates with a Black mother whom Mayer is portraying urging her son on the run from a would-be lynch mob to just give himself up. In so doing, Mayer turns her back on her career in acting, which is all she knows.
Seven decades after “Trouble in Mind” premiered, our racism-wrought society demands courage from those who can speak out for justice and dignity, in whatever arena. Some can. Some can’t. Some won’t. This is what makes the play so urgent today.
The Globe’s production of “Trouble in Mind” is directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who also directed a staging of the play in 2015 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando where she was founding artistic director. I don’t remember enough of the Moxie production to draw any comparison between it and this one, but I do know that Turner Sonnenberg is one of the most gifted directors in town, and that’s evinced in the performance of this Old Globe ensemble, particularly Ramona Keller as Wiletta Mayer. The gradual building and building to her eventual breaking point is genuine and organic, conveyed as much in her face and how she moves – or doesn’t move -- as in words. When she does speak, her righteousness is never empty oratory.
The play itself, however, is slow in getting started as one by one most of its characters are introduced. It isn’t until a first run-through of a scene from the script that the tension of “Trouble in Mind” begins to simmer. An issue, too, is the character of the director, Al Manners (Kevin Isola), whose last name advertises what he absolutely doesn’t have. He’s condescending, arrogant and bullying to the point that we wonder why anyone would work for or with him, and we wonder too why it takes so long for Wiletta to speak her piece.
A sequence in which Sheldon Forrester (Victor Morris), an elder Black member of the cast, recounts witnessing a lynching is as chilling as you’d expect. Coming when it does in the play, it also serves the purpose of fortifying Wiletta’s objections to the climax of “Chaos in Belleville.”
As Alice Childress once said: “The Black writer explains pain to those who inflict it.” In “Trouble in Mind,” Wiletta Mayer tries to explain that pain to Al Manners, whose response is right out of the Trump era playbook: a tantrum and an abhorrent attempt at victimhood. Just more evidence that 1955 isn’t as long ago as we think.
"Trouble in Mind" runs through March 13 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Emily Shackelford (left) and Beatrice Basso in "Life Sucks." Karli Cadel Photography
Say this for Aaron Posner: He knows how to make Chekov entertaining. Look no further than Cygnet Theatre in Old Town, which in 2016 staged Posner’s “Stupid Fucking Bird,” an irreverent adaptation of the Russian playwright’s “The Seagull,” and which is now presenting the West Coast premiere of Posner’s “Life Sucks,” a loose and intrepid take on “Uncle Vanya.”
The title of this play would seem germane to the times we’re living in, and sure enough Posner, who has also adapted Chekov’s “Three Sisters,” has made changes in the original “Life Sucks” script to reflect on our pandemic existence. “The play is very different from when I wrote it in 2015 because the world is so different,” Posner is quoted as saying in the Cygnet program.
Without having seen “Life Sucks” before this regional premiere, I can only say that if Posner reinvented the play for COVID commentary it is subtle. Without shouting out what we already know, “Life Sucks” the 2022 version redoubles what Posner is saying about no one being promised a perfect life, about how sometimes things do feel hopeless and that maybe it does suck to be here.
Look no further than the dreaded family gathering. As a wise person once opined: There’s a lot to be said for family, and a lot to be said against it. That certainly pervades the whole of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya,” in which such a gathering at a rural estate traffics in resentment, confrontation, self-recrimination, despair, a shooting … and I’m just getting started. In Posner’s “Life Sucks,” he checks all the Chekov boxes. The events may be taking place in the now and not the Russia of the 1890s, but they’re just as melodramatic. At first.
In “Life Sucks,” Sonya (Savanna Padilla) and her Uncle Vanya (MJ Sieber) are sharing uncomfortable space with The Professor (Frank DiPalermo) and his much younger third wife Ella (Emily Shackelford), over whom both Vanya and his best friend Dr. Astor (Jorge Rodriguez) are hot to bed. The lonely Sonya feels the same way about the dashing doctor. Also in the mix: the sassy Aunt Babs (Patty Gallagher) and the eccentric lesbian Pickles (Beatrice Basso). What happens through four half-hour acts runs very much parallel to “Uncle Vanya,” but Posner takes significant liberties, as in having his characters break the fourth wall to quiz and goof with the audience (really, the best part of this Cygnet production) and contemporizing their language and first-world problems.
Benefiting from the freewheeling pacing directed by Cygnet’s Rob Lutfy (who also directed “Stupid Fucking Bird”) and the riffing with the audience and with each other, this cast thrives on and exploits to consistently amusing effect the make-it-up-as-you-go-along momentum of the production.
Everyone gets a moment to shine, though Shackelford as Ella makes anyone in a scene with her just as funny as she is, and no one interacts with the crowd better. Sieber shifts between self-deprecation and tantrumming as Vanya, bringing to mind how, say, Kevin James might have played this role.
I got quite the kick out of DiPalermo’s arrogant, pedantic Professor, reminding me as he did of some of the academics to which I’ve been subjected.
As in “Uncle Vanya,” the Sonya character is possibly the most sympathetic. Padilla gets sympathy but also gets laughs.
Admittedly, the final act of “Life Sucks” turns “serious” with its life-affirming testimonies and what could practically be called piety. So what? If that’s what it takes to keep us from believing the two words that compose the play’s title I’m good. Truth is, life may seem like it sucks sometimes, but it doesn’t. When you can laugh when you didn’t think you were capable of laughing, you know you’re going to be all right.
"Life Sucks" runs through Feb. 27 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
Enrique Xavier Martinez and Nancy Ross in "Sapience." Photo courtesy of Moxie Theatre
What we have with “Sapience” is a failure to communicate. Primatologist Elsa (Mariel Leon) struggles to establish a workable “language” with Wookie, the orangutan she’s studying, (Nancy Ross). Elsa’s Latinx sister Miri (Vanessa Duron, who also directs this world-premiere co-production from Moxie Theatre and TuYo Theatre) aches to get through to and bond with her autistic son AJ (Enrique Xavier Martinez).
That’s not all. The expressive Miri is frustrated by the emotionally constipated Elsa. Elsa’s ex-boyfriend Jason (Alexander Guzman), who still cares for her when he’s not drumming up funding for the research institution, can’t persuade her to care back, even when he faces a deadly cancer diagnosis.
Yet with all these disconnects, Diana Burbano’s one-act play elucidates beautifully what lies beneath them: the anxious yearning to communicate, to feel, to matter.
Only in a pair of short, audience-facing Elsa monologues near its conclusion does “Sapience” go “message play” on us. Most of its 90 or so minutes find its characters – even the stifled Elsa – discovering within their sterile environment little joys. As when AJ delights at comparing Wookie’s language-sounds machine to his own. Or when Jason uses David Bowie’s rousing “Heroes” to get Elsa up on her feet to (briefly) dance. Or almost anytime the play’s omnipresence, Wookie, delights in the “hairless humans’” idiosyncratic behaviors.
“Sapience’s” breakthrough communication is the one quickly (perhaps too quickly?) achieved between AJ and Wookie, the two “nonverbals.” Their fast friendship born of loneliness begins playfully, but as the narrative darkens they together confront the realities of their isolations. When, in talking about Jason, AJ reveals to the orang the reality of life giving way to death, they seem to drift apart. It’s a sad moment for them. And for us.
In the starring role, Leon is challenged with making Elsa, who appears devoid of compassion, a character about whom we care. She does the best she can considering the rather strained backstory given her. Ross, meanwhile, is wondrous as Wookie. Her physicality is impressive, her facial expressions alternately mischievous and affecting. Noteworthy too is young Martinez in his stage debut as AJ. He was a student in the Options For All program run by this production’s inclusion specialist, Samantha Ginn.
Burbano, through the impassive but intelligent Elsa, asks us to accept that everything is normal, to accept neurodiversity. But Elsa it turns out wants more for herself. “Sapience” asks: Will she get it?
“Sapience” runs through Feb. 27 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat