Video Helped the Radio Star
As the old man in Samuel Beckett’s Embers sits at his kitchen table reminiscing, the sea washes over him till he’s barely discernible, a tiny figure fading into an endless, rolling ocean. He appears to be drifting in his memories of a life by the sea, swallowed by the vast aloneness at the end of life. The scene is startling—engineered by a remarkable marriage between old technology and new.
Using innovative digital techniques, director Caroline Nastro has transformed Beckett’s 1959 radio play into a dazzling fusion of sight and sound on the stage of the Connelly Theater. The production is spare and elegant: The man, Henry, sits boxed off from the pebble-strewn set by movable rectangular scrims front and rear. These serve as screens for the projection of his memories.
Sounds were originally the focus of this radiocast. In his more and more desperate effort to conjure up his father, to solve the mystery of his presumed suicide by drowning, Henry (Matthew Maguire) splashes water and beats rocks to imitate a gallop. Then he listens. The scrape of boots on pebbles signals the return of his departed wife Ada (played with unruffled sweetness by Mary Magdalena Hernandez), who drops tantalizing hints about his father’s end.
Maguire eloquently embodies this stranded soul, lost between old age and the vexing questions of his boyhood, animating Beckett’s terse poetics. The piece’s mysteries never resolve, but Nastro’s production creates a mesmerizing cocoon of consciousness. And her final image is a knockout—Henry reduced to a dot in the eye of a giant photo image of his father. —Francine Russo
Living in the Wind (American Place Theatre) recalls Toni Morrison’s Beloved in its stunned encounters with ghosts and its potent grapplings with the urgency—and impossibility—of reckoning with cataclysm. Michael Bradford’s new work scarcely blinks in staring down slavery’s aftermath, as portrayed by six former slaves in 1875 rural Georgia. What’s equally remarkable is how Bradford, director Regge Life, and the uniformly excellent performers infuse difficult material with such offhand humor and messy quotidian immediacy.
Isaiah (Chad L. Coleman) arrives at the backwoods cottage of his startled, dubious wife Sarah (Cheryl Freeman) after an unexplained 12-year absence. The wreckage of their hellish past—they were married on a plantation overseen by a beastly man named Maddox—begins accumulating, and reproachful phantoms haunt Sarah’s yard in the shape of her sister Mary (Keesha Sharp) and Mary’s lover JoJo (Nathan Hinton), whose terrible fates are gradually disclosed. In a bold textual move, Bradford breaks the fourth wall when Mary directly addresses the audience; she recounts her mother’s death at Maddox’s hands, and Sharp’s incantatory breakdown scorches the stage.
Most of the revelations, however, are quiet or deceptively casual: Isaiah’s awkwardly eloquent confession to Sarah of a bygone infraction; their sloppy, passionate first make-out session after reuniting. An expert craftsman of dialogue, Bradford can knit existential notions of original sin into light conversation with no visible expositional seams—a tough feat in a narrative so heavily freighted with backstory. His two main characters, and indeed the play itself, do no less than wake the dead—in Living in the Wind, the past is continually happening, while the present struggles on as best it can, not lying down among its memories, but just as resolutely refusing to shake them off. —Jessica Winter
The Crass Menagerie
Latina bombshell Lola rubs her sensuous curves against the washboard tummy of her lover as they kiss passionately. Their caliente foreplay is punctuated by the smooth sounds of a Latin beat. Guillermo Reyes opens Mother Lolita (Urban Stages), his hilarious new work, with a barrage of clichés. Gradually, however, he peels off the conventional glaze to reveal himself a sharp satirist. While indulging in the use of stereotypes, nothing escapes his clutches. Mexicans, Chileans, and Salvadoreans are mercilessly thrown together under the roof of a shoddy apartment complex in Los Angeles, the Hollywood Pit Gardens.
Reyes takes every liberty with his charming characters. Lola is a seduction queen and dedicated mama who occasionally morphs into a cruel embezzler; Tristerio sports a congenial grin as he helps Franco extort cash from illegal immigrants; macho opportunist Capo gets free lodging in return for straightening up Lola’s gay son, Xavier, who’s obsessed with liposuction and a career in showbiz. By exaggerating stereotypes, Reyes ends up destroying them. The characters are all morally tarnished, in some ways marvelously so.
The entire cast oozes energy, particularly Caesar Samayoa as the diva brat Xavier. Initially out of sync, they soon get their act together, shooting this comedy up to a perfect dizzying pitch in the boisterous last scene—which involves, among other things, a ghost stumbling around with a knife in its guts and a pregnant evangelist screaming in labor. Though smitten with anarchy, Reyes seems in full control of his tidy machine of melodrama, and T.L. Reilly’s firm direction makes the flamboyant romp feel like organized chaos. As the crumbling walls of the post-earthquake set suggest, the play stands on shaky land, but that’s precisely why it’s so enthralling. —Christiane Riera Salomon