Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

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“Her Portmanteau” at Boston Court: The Baggage of Being Foreign

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(L to R) Joyce Guy (Abasiama), Omozé Idehenre (Adiaha), Délé Ogundrian (Iniabasi) in “Her Portmanteau” at Boston Court Pasadena [photo: Craig Schwartz]

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.

What: “Her Portmanteau”  When: through June 30, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena  How Much: $20-$39  Info: (626) 683-6801 or www.BostonCourtPasadena.org
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“Heavier than…” reworks mythology for message

Review of  “Heavier than…” at The Theatre @ Boston Court

From the time of the ancient Greeks people have taken the great myths of western culture and reworked their characters to say something new. Shakespeare did it, and was hardly the first. The theatrical literature of the English language is peppered with references to and characters from classical tales. Steve Yockey’s “Heavier than…”, premiering at The Theatre at Boston Court, is just the latest. Its mash-up of Greek mythical references becomes, as much as anything, a commentary on politics and media, spoken by characters quite literally nearly as old as time.

The play looks at the story of Theseus from the perspective of the Minotaur. In the process it becomes a story of secrets, of the power of propaganda, of the betrayal of innocence, and the positive and negative powers of love. Indeed, in some ways it echoes concepts of Plato’s Cave: that someone restricted in scope will develop a sense of reality based on his isolation.

If you have never heard the story of the Minotaur, the short version is this: he was the result of an affair between the wife of King Minos of Crete and a white bull she was maneuvered into loving by an angry Poseidon. Theseus, the young king from Athens, joins a group of Athenian young people (Athens is fated to send one of these groups every seven years) destined to be killed by this Minotaur, who is kept at the center of a famed labyrinth. King Minos’ daughter Ariadne falls for Theseus and offers him advice (to get in) and thread (to find his way out), allowing him to defeat the Minotaur. He then sails off, taking Ariadne with him (well, at least temporarily).

Now, imagine all of this as seen from inside the labyrinth, with its limited access to information. Here we find Asterius, the Minotaur, guarded over by three fate-like women who not only supervise him but feed him information to fit him to his purpose. His only two visitors, other than the Athenian youths he kills every few years are his half-sister Ariadne (who must sneak in) and the young Icarus, who flies in on early versions of wings developed by his eccentric inventor father – a man also consigned to a portion of the labyrinth. In the labyrinth Asterius dreams of his mother (can even “view” her),  listens to retellings of his own beginnings, and lives in innate simplicity.

Director Abigail Deser has wrapped this in a stylized, almost minimalist vision, and collected a small and sensitive cast to make the tale come alive. As Asterius, Nick Ballard, though a bit slight, balances a sense of physical power with a childlike innocence. Those who feed this narrow and simple view are the three women who almost literally hang above him and watch. Ashanti Brown, Katie Locke O’Brien and most particularly Teya Patt give a petulant charm to these overwatchers, even as they move from indulgent patience to increasing panic as his innocence begins to fracture.

Laura Howard’s casually caring, rather vapid Ariadne plays well against her child-man of a brother. Jill van Velzer, as their regal mother, brings an intense, heart-wrenched quality to her response to each of her children’s situations. As the young and rather masochistic Icarus, Casey Kringlen pads about his friend’s confining space with the air of someone in love with danger, arriving each time in ever larger wings – an ever larger, ever more risky dare to move beyond the possible.

All of these people form the canvas for a play about purpose and truth, and controlling one’s own fate. There is much about impulse, and the meaning of a person’s life. In the end, is the Minotaur a good son, for doing what is expected, or the monster that those outside the labyrinth believe? Is it good to give a chained soul hope, even if that hope is unlikely or unreal? Does any of this alter the final outcome, or the way the story will be told? The layers keep unfolding.

Kurt Boetcher’s set design allows for the sense of “tending” that defines the looming women, gives the sense of the Minotaur’s imprisonment, yet still offers space for his visions and his entertainment (some provided by Robert Prior’s fascinating Indonesian-style puppetry. He also made Icarus’ increasingly elaborate wings). There is an interesting, but not completely effective element to Martin Carrillo’s sound design which gives an overlapping sound delay to some of what those fateful women say. I get the concept, but as performed it seems more like bad reverb on the mics than something symbolic.

As always with a Boston Court production, you will have much to take away and chew over when you leave. Be aware that anyone deeply bound up in Greek mythology will find plenty to poke holes in. That’s not the point, of course, any more than a production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is only as good as the Hamlet playing in the background. Rather, look to the inner meanings – what all these folk represent. You may find it having much to do with our current circumstance, as families, as people and as a nation. In other words, though the play has considerable humor, it may be “Heavier than…” you think.

What: “Heavier than…”  When: Through August 21, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays  Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena  How Much: $32 general, $27 students/seniors  Info: (626) 683-6883 or www.bostoncourt.com

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