Thursday, June 20, 2024

Theater Reviews: Home Is an Elusive Thing for an Asian Trans Man (“Isabel”), a Black Farmer From North Carolina (“Home”) and a Female War Reporter (“Breaking the Story”)

Isabel (c) Marcus Middleton

Theater: Isabel 
Presented by NAATCO at Abron Arts Center 

In last year’s Japanese animated film, Suzume, directed by Makoto Shinkai, the lead character is a teenage girl who accidently opens a portal into another dimension, turning the handsome stranger she has a crush on into a chair. For the rest of the movie, Suzume and this chair have to work together to close this portal. I am reminded of this movie and that specific plot point while watching playwright reid tang's Isabel, which tries to replicate this sort of magical realism on stage, an especially tricky task for human actors, not two-dimensional drawings. I’m not saying that anyone is turned into a chair in tang’s play, but I’m also not not saying anyone is turned into an inanimate object either. In director Kedian Keohan’s sparse production, we are engulfed in a sort of a fairy tale world in which Matt (Sagan Chen) is living in an old decrepit, possibly haunted house in a small town called Hindsight, surrounded by a forest. Enter Matt’s brother, Harriet (Ni-Ni), who is backpacking through the woods with his girlfriend Isabel (Haruna Lee) and gets lost before finding the house. After a short visit and some family catch-up, Isabel and Harriet leave Hindsight and Matt’s home, and that’s when the play start to go sideways with things that would make sense in an animated film or manga, but on stage needs the audience to take a bigger leap, who, at my performance, seem tentative with every new plot turn. The recurring imagery of a staircase in the woods that lead to nowhere (or everywhere) is one element that intrigues without the need of explanation. The many plot threads do feel connected to the theme of trans-ness. Matt (like Chen himself) is a trans man, and Harriet, who appears as a cis man, also seems to be on the rainbow spectrum. There is an extended and satisfying flashback to Matt and Harriet’s family life when they were teens with their mother (represented offstage as a growling creature) that feels to be the lynchpin and heart of tang’s play. With an identity diverse cast and crew, and a play about a trans man’s search for their place in the world, Isabel is refreshingly odd and curiously riveting. But there’s a higher meaning to the play that tang leaves unexplored or purposefully omitted, like why Isabel is the titled character or how long Matt has been on this journey since leaving home. It’s always fun to try to crack a puzzle play (like say Equus), but Isabel, even with all the provocative elements, seems to be missing a few crucial facts that keep it elusively out of reach. 

Breaking the Story (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Breaking the Story 
At 2nd Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre (closing this weekend) 

Alexis Scheer’s new play, Breaking the Story, begins with a bang. Actually, a lot of bangs. The play’s main character is Marina (Maggie Siff), a war reporter who’s on assignment with her longtime cameraman/lover, Bear (Louis Ozawa), when they are bombarded with explosions and artillery fire, and immediately the stage is enveloped in darkness. Next time we see Marina, she is literally and figuratively touching grass in Wellesley, Massachusetts where she has decided after that last soul-shaking near miss that it’s time for her 20-year career to end, with the presentation of a lifetime-achievement, journalist award. She has impulsively bought with her life savings a summer vacation house as her permanent home, and equally impetuously, she proposes to Bear that they elope this weekend as well. The guests who came for the award ceremony now have to also quickly plan a wedding, including her best friend (Geneva Carr), who conveniently is a party planner; her daughter (Gabrielle Policano), who wants to join a rock band; her mother (Julie Halston), who came up from her retirement home in Florida; and a younger colleague (Tala Ashe), who’s hosting the award ceremony. Punctuating these scenes of domestic bliss are harrowing war memories that refuse to let Marina retire in peace. Playwright Scheer, who wrote the interesting and popular Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, keeps the audience questioning if Marina is actually going to go through with her retirement or if she is too addicted to the adrenaline and excitement of war, like Bradley Cooper’s character in American Sniper. Siff, who is most known for the TV show Billions, brings much depth to Marina, giving her struggles a palpable and urgent energy. The rest of the cast, which includes Matthew Saldívar as Marina’s ex, are all great, with Ozawa as the supportive love interest, and Halston, with her signature comic line readings, the standouts. Although at a relatively brisky 90 minutes, deftly directed by Jo Bonney, the play may have brought up one too many plot threads to overwhelm Marina, especially a secret she’s been keeping since the beginning of her career that feels especially extraneous, although dramatically utilized. There are clues throughout the play that Marina’s grip on reality might also be slipping, and the ending really packs a wallop (although I had an inkling where it was all heading). This is a fine follow-up to Drug Lord for Scheer, and I look forward to her next play. 

Home (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Home 
On Broadway at the Todd Haimes Theatre 

Since the pandemic shutdown of New York theaters, there has been an incredible surge of revivals of plays and musicals by African American playwrights and creators. Plays by Adrienne Kennedy, Alice Childress, Charles Fuller and Ntozake Shange made it to Broadway, including last season’s Purlie Victorious by Ossie Davis and The Wiz. The trend continues this season, starting with a revival of Samm-Art Williams’ Home, which was last seen on Broadway in 1980 after a successful run at the Negro Ensemble Company. The original production received two Tony nominations and included two actresses who would be Tony-nominated for August Wilson plays in the 1990s. The current revival has a talented trio of actors, including Tory Kittles, who plays Cephus, a Black man in the 1960s whose return to his family farm in North Carolina sparks a flood of memories, with all the other parts being played by Brittany Inge and Stori Ayers. Cephus’ story —losing most of his family at a young age, falling in love with a childhood sweetheart, being heartbroken when she dumps him after going to college, being thrown in prison for conscientiously objecting to serving in Vietnam, leaving for New York for a fresh start only to find himself in an urban hell of drugs and crimes (no one hires an ex-con) before finding his way back to North Carolina, the farm and a destiny called home may seem brave to tell for actor-turned-playwright Williams in 1980, but with 21st century eyes, the more compelling part today is the love story bookending this one-act play. And while Kittles (currently on the TV show The Equalizer) invests his character with emotional honesty, the structure of the two actresses playing all the other characters in his life gets somewhat repetitive and tiresome without a powerful payoff. Director Kenny Leon doesn’t seem to have a vision for Home as he did for his Tony-nominated Purlie Victorious, but he does keep the plot clear, with the action mostly played on a single platform set by Arnulfo Maldonado that, thankfully, is backdropped by the much-needed greenery of nature. The saddest part of this production that will be remembered most is that Samm-Art Williams died before the play went into previews.

If you want to comment on these reviews, please do so on my Instagram account.  All reviews have their own post.  And please follow to know when new reviews are released.