Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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The topic of immigration is on everyone’s front burner these days, for often very sad reasons. For many, the interest, or the threat, of immigration comes from the effects any group of immigrants at any time have had on what one considers the dominant American culture. It has always been this way, sadly, whether it is disquiet over the Irish, the Chinese, the Eastern European Jews, the Italians or Polish, the Cubans, or the Vietnamese boat people, to name just a few.
Still, there is another aspect to being (as we are, whether we admit it or not) a nation of immigrants: the difference between those who have by practice or generation, regardless of how much they honor their original culture, become Americanized, and those who carry the original culture because it is still theirs. It is this which is explored in Mfoniso Udofia’s “Her Portmanteau,” now receiving its west coast premiere at Boston Court Pasadena. Here three steps on that assimilation scale look at what is shared, and what separates a “foreigner” from a part of our American ethnocultural tossed salad.
Iniabasi Ekpeyong has just arrived from Nigeria. Though born in the US she has been raised by her late father back on the family compound. Now she is in New York to meet the mother and half sister she hasn’t laid eyes on since childhood. Her mother Abasiama Ufot, and her half-sister Adiaha Ufot are unfamiliar in more ways than one might expect, as language and culture and a disorienting distance between expectation and reality create barriers and end-run openings for the three women.
This work is part of Udofia’s 9-part cycle of plays documenting the Ufot family, but stands well on its own. In it, the entire idea of the US as a paradise is placed up against the friction between traditional family roles and hierarchies, traditional modes of hospitality, even traditional and adapted foods, and how such things can hamper even well-intentioned attempts at understanding. What one runs from and what one runs toward become the ways in which these people balance the bonds of blood and the differences of experience, like a portmanteau, an old fashioned style of suitcase built with two distinct sides one fills separately and then brings together to fasten. Only then do they touch.
Dele Ogundiran is Iniabasi, expecting reunion traditions unfamiliar here, and anxious in many directions at the end of an interminable flight. Watching her severity and fear gradually unbend gives weight and humanity to the awkwardness of difference where one expects to find sameness. Omoze Idehenre, as the American-raised daughter Adiaha, brings to the obligatory balance of inherited traditions and American-centered cultural frameworks a sense of exasperation and kindness which lay the groundwork the play develops. Joyce Guy gives the mother of the two other women, Abasiama, a palpable aura of apology, for distance and for difference, gradually laying out her own burdens, and gradually absorbing those her daughters face.
Director Gregg T. Daniel gives this word-rich play a sense of activity and interwoven characters which keeps it from devolving into a kind of panel discussion. This is particularly important as significant sections of the piece are at least partially in Ibibio, one of Nigeria’s traditional languages which is spoken here laced with occasional English words and phrases. That Iniabasi speaks it as first language, her mother Abasiama can return to it willingly, but – though she understands it well enough – Adiaha chooses to only use English is shorthand for the transitions which are at the core of the play. Daniel makes this work.
A note of praise also for Tesshi Nakagawa’s set design for the cramped Inwood apartment in NYC, for Jeff Gardner’s subtle but essential sound design, and for Erin Walley’s props, so evocative of the cultural interplay so necessary in telling this tale.
Yes, unless you speak Ibibio, you will not understand every word. That is, one assumes, a point – a rich conversation and interaction which is in itself isolating here, though communal somewhere else. Take that in, as part of “Her Portmanteau”: part of what these characters carry with them as they bump into being American.
When one first hears that A Noise Within has reset the powerful 1960s musical “Man of La Mancha” in a modern prison in the developing world, it can make one nervous. After all, it is based not only on one of the great works of international literature, but a historical figure who actually did end up imprisoned by the Inquisition for a segment of time. How can one take the piece out of its historical context? Yet, it is one of the hallmarks of a theatrical work that it can stand up to being reset, both in time and location. The new physical trappings of the tale can inform a wider understanding of the impact of the piece, even if the actual language stays the same.
As a consistent modern interpreter of Shakespeare, ANW co-Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott knows this. Indeed, a work like “Julius Caesar,” about ancient Roman politics, has been reset by various great companies in Mussolini’s Italy, in JFK’s America, or even in a dystopian future without losing its integrity. So, her decision that “La Mancha” can handle the same treatment seems particularly apt.
What may be less wise on Rodriguez-Elliott’s part arises from the demands of this particular work. As musical director Dr. Melissa Sky-Eagle states up front, “Despite the folk-inspired nature of the music itself, the voices required [in “Man of La Mancha”] need to be almost operatic in nature.” While many of the performers – a number of them new to ANW – are very much up to this demand, some of ANW’s stock players are not, really. This creates an imbalance which sometimes distracts from not only the original message of the show, but the additional intent of this new staging.
The story is, of course, a story-within-a-story. Don Miguel de Cervantes, the poet, playwright and novelist seen by many as the Spanish equivalent (at least in literary impact) to William Shakespeare, has been thrown into prison by the Inquisition while awaiting trial. There he must defend himself against the other prisoners, who are out to steal what goods he has. He does so by enacting for them the tale he carries in a manuscript – the manuscript for his finest work, “Don Quixote de La Mancha.” Interrupted on occasion by the guards, he pulls his hearers into his story, both literally – to create the needed characters – and figuratively, as they come to appreciate his view of the world.
For those who know more traditional productions of this work, there are a few things missing. For one, there is no dancing and thus no faux horse and mule. Rather, Don Quixote and Sancho ride mops as if they were hobby horses. The props are less things that Cervantes has brought with him, and more found objects from the prison itself. And that transformative moment when Cervantes becomes Quixote is dulled a bit, in that this Cervantes already has so much facial hair there is little need to add much.
Still, the grime of the prison, the seediness of the inn, and the grim lives of those Quixote encounters are still very much in evidence, and the music – particularly at certain moments – proves as wrenching and powerful as ever. But there is inconsistency in this. Geoff Elliott is Cervantes/Quixote, and his speaking voice has the force and grandeur needed, but this character must be able to sing in a commanding and heartfelt way that Elliott really cannot master. His breathing is often labored, his vocal tone goes chesty, and some of the important lyrics – and the lyrics are particularly important throughout this show – become comparatively unintelligible.
On the other hand, Kasey Mahaffy’s Sancho can sing in a bright and tinny way, and it works, in part because it emphasizes the character’s simple, practical approach to the world. Indeed, one of the few cuts one truly regrets is the shortening of Sancho’s last song, which takes away some of its humor – a humor Mahaffy emphasizes to good effect throughout. Cynthia Marty, as both the nervous housekeeper Quixote has left behind and the annoyed wife of the innkeeper, creates two solidly interesting characters, matched by Gabriel Zenone’s fatalistic innkeeper.
Michael Uribes creates two strong characters, as the reputed leader of the prisoners, and as the pseudo-intellectual fiancé of Quixote’s niece, more worried about what he will inherit than about the man he will inherit from. Cassie Simone sings beautifully as the Quixote’s deeply embarrassed niece. ANW regular Jeremy Rabb has a somewhat less successful time as the gentle padre, who must offer tender songs in a rich tenor voice that Rabb has to work to reach.
By far the finest performance of this production is Cassandra Marie Murphy’s passionate, bitter Aldonza, creating in her portrayal that combination of despair and curiosity which makes Aldonza so interesting, and singing those deep, powerful, angst-ridden songs with a fire you cannot look away from.
Kudos to ANW for using a live orchestra, and one which uses the original orchestration (no strings except a bass and guitars) which gives the enterprise such a direct, and folk-Spanish feel. Fred Kinney’s scenic design gives a sense of space and enclosure – the dual demands of such a dual tale. Angela Balogh Calen’s costumes are largely supposed to look frayed and dirty (as well as reflecting a non-specific prison garb) and all of this comes off well. Lighting is key in this story, and Ken Booth’s design helps carry the story forward in very specific ways, as do Erin Walley’s “found object” props – essential in this prop-heavy show.
In the end, with the new underscore of continuing spaces of despairing imprisonment and horror in our world, the main sentiments of “Man of La Mancha” come through: hope may seem madness, but can lift up those who choose it. And that is just as apt today as it was for the original creators of the musical, or Cervantes himself. It could have been more even in presentation, but it is definitely there.
“Man of La Mancha” plays in repertory with “King Lear” and “Ah, Wilderness”.
What: “Man of La Mancha” When: through May 21; 7 p.m. April 16 and 30, May 21; 7:30 p.m. April 6; 8 p.m. April 7, May 6, 12 and 13; 2 p.m. matinees April 16, 22 and 30, May 7, 13 and 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org