Theater archives

Through the Flames


It’s the stuff of fairy tales. The finest artisans craft a human figure so beautiful that it makes onlookers breathless. But all their skill or wisdom can’t make it breathe and live. The same might be said of the sumptuously mounted Erendira and Blood Cherries.

Erendira, adapted and directed by Kristin Marting from a story by Gabriel García Márquez (with some additions by Ruth Margraff), draws from the psychic terrain of children’s stories. The title character, the bastard daughter of a queen’s son, lives with and slavishly serves her regal grandmother. When the girl’s candle accidentally sets the house ablaze and destroys it, the old woman demands Erendira repay her. She makes the girl a prostitute and invites all comers. A young man will fall in love with the girl and try to rescue her. Death and mysterious doings will ensue.

Marting has created a unique visual and aural world. David Evan Morris’s set festoons the stage with stained canvas sails hung from rough-hewn ropes, all fronted by a primitive throne. For the Queen’s robe, costumer Nancy Brous invents a papier-mâché white gown that opens and closes like a door and becomes dress, house, and bed. Juliet Chia’s exquisite lighting transforms sails into flames, somber shadows, and glowing romantic backdrops, while Lea Rekow’s video images contribute grim autumnal tones. Todd Griffin’s music swirls from lilting to sultry, but, mostly, the mood of music and light is minor key with a vengeance. Aside from the Grandmother (Ching Valdes-Aran), Erendira (Elisa Terrazas), and the boy Ulises (Janio Marrero), the other players are represented by Lake Simons’s grotesque puppets, composed of stuffed heads, sticks, and branches and manipulated by two handlers. We see Erendira’s deflowering in macabre silhouette, skeletal fingers clawing at the shape of a naked girl.

Strangely, while the shadow of Erendira undergoes this violation behind the screen, the live girl stands outside, singing a tuneless, cryptic song. Psychologically, this tactic can be rationalized: The girl stands outside her body as it is raped. It also makes a kind of sense that Terrazas should play her without emotion, because, metaphorically, her grandmother has sucked her dry. Dramatically, though, this artistic strategy does not work. Stories engage us when we identify with the afflicted protagonist, but this production gives us no one to care about. What it does offer is one character who’s great fun to watch. While the girl hardly blinks through her catalog of disasters, Valdes-Aran, a live wire of a wicked “step”-grandmother, registers the most subtle shades of feeling. A sensual old woman, reliving and haunted by memories, she preens, she groans, she emits a low, throaty laugh that stops just short of a cackle. Shading her behavior with near-tenderness, she seems a human villain. Still, there is much that does not add up in this staging. Some repeated Márquez-isms, for example, like turning “clockwise through the hammock,” simply don’t translate.

Dawn Akemi Saito’s Blood Cherries also mines folklore and archetypes, but her roots are Japanese. The piece, which the Butoh-inspired dancer has written and performs, jumps from clever contemporary repartee to surreal visions of body parts to images of World War II devastation.

Ultimately, we understand Blood Cherries as an elegy to the narrator’s father, but Saito attempts so much in so many directions, many of them private and elliptical, that her play lacks coherence.

Yet some of its parts are striking. After an amusing contretemps with her eccentric French husband, who insists on celibacy one week a month, the Japanese American narrator bursts into a sexual frenzy. Transforming herself into a horse, she gallops around the vast, bare stage. We hear anguished neighing and the clop of hooves while, on the huge lighted screen behind her, a bloody moon expands to cover the sun. As pure spectacle, it’s impressive.

She also transforms herself into people—her Japanese grandmother; her aged, dying father; her clucking, worried mother. The father, a former Japanese officer turned Buddhist priest and hippie, breathes laboriously, while video images blow up a breathing apparatus on the screen and whooshing sounds bellow from the stage. As the mother, Saito’s most successful impersonation, she assails her husband’s deadly penchant for salt and berates herself because she “starved” him with tasteless food. In another sequence, the grandmother screams in Japanese at deafeningly loud bombers while terrifying clouds obliterate the sky; she quivers and jerks and seems almost to dissolve.

Saito can make her body express almost any emotion—from her old father’s quivering cha-cha to her sensuous rolling on the floor in an agony of sexual longing. But the poetry, nightmares, history, and comedic present do not come together. No coherent self emerges with whom we can feel grief when she drags her father’s “body” (represented by an expanding rice-paper mat) toward a roaring conflagration.

Eva Mantell’s visual design, Donna Zakowska’s lighting, and David Van Tieghem’s music and sound create some stunning effects. The beauty and fury of the flames dazzle here, as they do, more poetically, in Erendira. But for all the beauty of their images, emotionally neither Blood Cherries nor Erendira really catches fire.