One of the greatest aspects of new works is how they make you think on a more visceral level. With no prior experience to compare them to, the first reactions are usually heightened and the imprints stamped far deeper than when revisiting a well-known play. The second series of Vital Theatre’s new works festival possess three such works, each offering a different train of thought and each prodding the audience to examine their provocative natures. The True Love Story of My Parents offers quirky laughs, Defacing Michael Jackson an exuberant yet uncomfortable glimpse into 1980’s nostalgia, and #9 a rather lusty look at the subway. Sadly, however, the other three pieces in this series merit no more than simply space in the program.
The evening begins with an uneven piece entitled Never Never Land by Laura Rohrman and directed by Habib Azar. The title and obvious names of the two characters do little to inject this play with any sort of energy, but instead give the appearance of a cheap gimmick. In this Never Never Land, Pete is a druggie who indulges his habit until he dies and takes to visiting Wendy for ghostly midnight rendezvous. The holes abound in this one, leaving the audience out of the back story and only dropping scant hints as to who these people really are and what their situation is/used to be. Its limited attempts to invoke the themes of Peter Pan feel unnatural, and this play concludes with as little vigor as it began with.
Thankfully, the second piece is the most riotous of the evening. The True Love Story of My Parents is a warts-and-all account of the friendship, courtship, marriage, separation, and rediscovery of love between the parents of a silent but expressive little girl (Natalia Payne). Narrated through enlarged note cards on the side of the stage, this whirlwind journey provides all three actors involved with the outline needed to create truly eccentric but lovable characters. Ed Vassalo as the Dad is a hoot with his various ailments and misguided attempts to be romantic, and Carolyn Baeumler is both endearing and wacky as the artistic and scatterbrained Mom. And even though she never says a word (directly), Natalia Payne does her best to physically commentate on the action being played out before her. Director Shira Milikowsky keeps the pacing quick while expertly maneuvering through playwright Elizabeth Merriwether’s fresh approach to storytelling.
Defacing Michael Jackson by Aurin Squire is an almost complete 180 spin from the Love Story, but it stands its ground proudly while telling its own tale. Florida in 1984 is not the most glamorous place to live for a group of “ghetto fabulous” kids who idolize Michael Jackson, but according to Obie, at least it’s someplace to claim. Until a white family moves in, that is, and slowly their little town begins to change, and with it come changes for the children. What this play lacks in focus is more than made up for in talent, especially DeVon Jackson (Obie) and Niketa Calame (Frenchy). The banter between the kids is so lively and natural, a direction for the story seems to almost get in the way, and therein lies the central problem with Jackson. The struggle Obie faces when he suspects he might be gay comes as a lightweight deus ex machine, a second-tier problem plopped in to quickly end the story and provide the dynamite which blows the characters apart. What the play has focused on for the last fifteen minutes (racial segregation and tension) is far more layered and intriguing then the last-minute personal turmoil.
The two pieces that bring the audience back from intermission are barely memorable. Mina by Kyoung S. Park and Coyotes by Catherine Gillet possess neither motivation nor substance, save for the charismatic but directionless monologue delivered by Deborah S. Craig in Mina.
Finally, #9 is what presents the greatest opportunity to think in the evening. When a Park Avenue white woman decides to screw the system by screwing a poor black man she meets on the subway, her husband decides to take action in his own way. While this in itself could be a stimulating look at the racial caste system, playwright Chisa Hutchinson decides to take it one step further by incorporating blackface and minstrel show-like moments to bang the audience over the head with her point. Problem is, while her orbital elements force a jarring reaction from the audience, her actual action onstage is lacking in drive. For all this powerful imagery and symbolism, I was expecting a far stronger point than the blasé attitudes the characters adopt toward their actions, translating into a confusing and unexplained message.
Where this grab bag of talent is concerned, Vital Signs had plucked out a few jewels and given the audience a faint glimpse at their brilliance. As for the others, I can only hope that the next time they resurface there’s a bit more polish to their surfaces.
Vital Theatre Company