Regional Reviews: New Jersey
No Child ... and Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England
Youthful John Diaz informs us in his program biography that his twelve years at New York's Public Theatre included his rise to Associate Producer and Associate Artistic Director where "during much of his tenure ... working for Producer George C. Wolfe, he was responsible for all aspects of play production on the theatre's six stages" as well as the Delacorte. Therefore, it should come as no surprised that in this, the first season which Diaz has planned and programmed since his assumption of the post of artistic director at the Two River Theatre in August 2010, Diaz has already begun to establish an adventurous and lively Manhattan vibe there which is bringing invigorating fresh air to its appreciative audiences
The author-actress has based her hopeful, largely sunny play on her own experience as a visiting teaching artist in a variety of New York City public schools. Nilaja Sun plays a variation of herself, an out of work actress having trouble paying the rent on her Brooklyn apartment, who has landed a temporary job at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx in our nation's poorest congressional district. Over the next six weeks, Ms. Sun is going to be teaching the students of one of Ms. Tam's 10th grade English classes about a play, and casting and directing them in a performance of it. It is not A Raisin in the Sun or West Side Story as they expect, but Our Country's Good, an Australian anti-war play set in 1788.
Nilaja Sun broadly and affectionately depicts sixteen characters, starting with the school's 80-year-old loquacious and friendly janitor who serves as narrator, and the young Chinese-American teacher Ms. Tam, who is sweet and well intentioned, but too timid and inexperienced to gain sufficient control over her charges or stay the course. Sun also portrays eight students, the school principal, a couple of additional teachers, a security guard, and one student's grandmother. Although some of the students tend to blend together in the fast-paced and vernacular dialogue, the students with spunk tend to stand out.
Ms. Sun helps the youngsters see parallels between their lives and those imprisoned in the Australian play and arouses much interest in the prospect of performing in the school auditorium. Obstacles run the full range from school field trips to personal tragedy for one student. It's a tough life for these kids, but Ms. Sun finds out that her enthusiasm, resilience, love of teaching theatre, and concern and affection for her children can reach and bring out the best qualities in her students. There are no great accomplishments, no guaranteed life-altering changes in Ms. Sun's students, but some hopes and dreams blossom, and joyous moments and modest triumphs do accrue. Well, let me run this back a little small triumphs and rays of hope are great accomplishments where there are large obstacles to the triumph of the soul.
You may recognize 16-year-old Shondrika, a 16-year-old fox with attitude who may just have the spark to really be something special; high spirited 18-year-old Jerome, who may be inspired to overcome his impenetrably sloppy enunciation and improve his future; or 17-year-old Jose, whose situation at home threatens his cherished opportunity to perform.
Director Hal Brooks has done such a good job in enabling Sun to convey a sense of personal, improvisational, enthusiastic storytelling that one tends to forget that there is even a director on board with this production.
There is a whimsical conclusion conveyed to us by the janitor which reinforces the love of life and concern for the lives of others that make Nilaja Sun and her high spirited No Child ... so engaging.
No Child ... continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday 7 pm; Thursday - Saturday 8 pm / Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 3 pm / Tues. 10 AM/ Wednesday 1 pm) through November 20, 2011, at the Two River Theatre Company, Rechnitz Main Stage, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online: www.trtc.org.
The setting of the Mammoths is a college in a small New England town. Center stage is a diorama in the college's small, nondescript natural history museum. The diorama features a barren landscape and two fully dimensional mock up Neanderthals, one male and one female. Their portrayers maintain set positions, but they do talk. Each time the diorama is lit throughout the course of the play, we find them in a new fixed position and new costumes, and again talking. Late in the play, they appear to be costumed as mammoths. Although, to be frank, I've never met any. It may not be immediately and/or consistently clear, but the figures in the diorama speak only the words of their visitors on the other side of the glass.
Without giving too much away, it can be said that there is humor in this conceit as well as a powerful insight which will be made manifest before the playwright sends us home. Another fixture of the museum is its elderly caretaker who sits at his desk nearby to the diorama and, mostly during scene transitions, reads aloud news about the town folks from the local paper. During a post play discussion, it was made clear that the caretaker was meant to suggest the stage manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, but not many of us viewers picked up on that. However, the caretaker proves to be an educated, insightful fella, is a truly understanding and responsive sounding board for Dean Wreen (I'll tell you all about her and the others soon as I finish this sentence), and can be really funny when George wants him to be so.
The other settings slowly arc outward from both sides of the museum, and are the rooms in the house of the college's fiftyish administrator, Dean Wreen. She has a full plate of private and profession headaches. Primary among the latter is the decision of the college's board to dismantle its musty little museum in order to build a large, luxury dormitory to improve the school's shaky finances by attracting more money in the form of students and an additional stream of income. Rebellious, intellectual teacher Cindy Wreen would have fought the barbarians who would do such things, but Dean Wreen has violated her self image by supporting the change. Suddenly, alumni and townsfolk have decided that they love their museum and are launching a campaign to save it, which threatens to become a troublesome national news story.
Living and partnering with Dean Wreen, who has an eye for younger, student aged women, is Andromeda. She is in her twenties, but it's okay, she is no longer a student here. Without consulting with Andromeda, Dean Wreen agrees to allow her former longtime partner Greer, a fellow academician who, if I have it right, is on leave from teaching at the college, to return to live at her house. Greer had moved out of the house a couple of years earlier over compatibility issues, but she has recently been battling cancer and it has become difficult for her to live on her own.
Andromeda is a sexually uninhibited, spacey, sloppy thinking, new age spiritualism disciple, and intellectually pretentious. Greer is sexually inhibited, grounded, precise in her thinking, practical and realistic, and intellectually pretentious. You know where this is going, but not entirely.
Madeleine George knows this trio. She has the same background, education, profession, intelligence, proudly proclaimed sexual preference and, I would imagine to some degree, intellectual pretension. George is also a creative and intellectually challenging playwright. Off hand, it would be difficult to come up with the name of another playwright who could better put the appropriate words into the mouths of her academia triangle. Their humor, thought processes, styles and emotional responses are there for all to see. While she has drawn them with dimension and unblinkingly included their considerable flaws, she has also drawn them with love and affection.
Mercedes Herrero is a totally fluid and natural Dean Wreen. There is a palpable self-confident impulsiveness in her performance which seems to be a basis for all of Wreen's behaviors. Without being in any way fussy, Deirdre Madigan's Greer displays the unsettlingly quiet assurance which Greer retains even in the face of her own mortality. Flora De Liz Perez conveys both the annoying shallowness as well as the decency of the young Andromeda. Joel Van Liew is delightfully droll as The Caretaker. Jon Hoche and Lauren Culpepper are more than able as the encased Neanderthals.
Director Ken Rus Schmoll has directed a smooth, naturalistic ensemble performance. The complex play and production does seem in need of some pruning and clarification to reach its full potential. The extensive scenic design of Arnulfo Maldonado makes good use of the wide stage employed in the current configuration of the Two River black box theatre. It nicely solves any potential problems that might be caused by the absence of a backstage area.
While it is a bit difficult to follow and overstuffed (like this sentence), Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England is a smart and imaginative play enlivened by caustic and witty dialogue that you only hear spoken by puffed up academic types who think that they are smarter than everyone else and, smart though they may be, are never as smart as they think that they are.
Last, but not least, Madeleine George has an intellectually satisfying concept in store for us that employs magic realism. Maybe, those profs are smarter than I think.
Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England has extended performances (Evenings: Wednesday 7 pm; Thursday-Saturday 8pm/ Matinees Wednesday 1 P.M.; Saturday, Sunday 3 P.M.) through November 20, 2011 at the Two River Theatre Company, Marion Huber Theatre, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online: www.trtc.org.
Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England by Madeleine George; directed by Ken Rus Schmoll