Penumbra steps out with highly original Slippery When Wet
Slippery When Wet is S. H. Murakoshi's sometimes delicate, sometimes passionate and often explosive dance of relationship-negotiation between an Asian-American woman and an African-American man. Under the superb direction and choreography of award-winning Ching Valdes-Aran, Penumbra Theatre's production is charged with sensuality, old taboos and mesmerizing beauty.
The set, designed by Valdes-Aran and Jason Allyn Schwerin, gives the initial hint that audiences are in for something particular. A dramatic white diamond of flooring overlays the stage and is reflected in the tilted mirror that forms the backdrop. Otherwise, there are few props, just two white boxes and a white stand for a vase of flowers. The mirror reflects every action on stage, so it serves to reflect and reinforce the background of racial prejudices that the two characters lug around with them.
We tend to think of prejudice as being the sole province of white Americans, but Murakoshi's play shatters that myth.
Slippery When Wet looks at an intense attraction between two accomplished young people. Helen (Katrina Toshiko) is a third-generation Japanese-American and an aspiring actor and writer. Rakim (Desean Terry) is a successful black filmmaker. The play is their first date in her apartment on a night when the city is locked in blinding snow.
The attraction between them feels both electric and tender. The relationship hums with potential for consummation, but the characters' spoken asides to the audience reveal the fuse-breakers that threaten their togetherness. "They're full of shame," and "A black man is a sexual machine," thinks Helen. "Three thousand years of sexual repression," thinks Rakim.
Internal thoughts break through the action frequently, often to humorous affect. The other actor freezes, and Mark Dougherty's masterly light design combines with Martin Gwinup's video projections to make it crystal clear that for a moment we are witnessing the inner life.
Katrina Toshiko opens the play dressed in a red kimono, speaking and moving in the manner of stylized Japanese Noh theater. But she stubs her toe and emits an essentially American "Shit!" Without the kimono, she appears all-American in a brief tank top and hip-slung jeans. Toshiko captures Helen's longing for Rakim, and her hesitation; she positively squirms with toe-curling desire. But she is blocked by her family's history of WW II internment and an association of her mother's early death with "coloreds." Helen grew up in the briar patch of her grandmother's biases.
Rakim carries his own lineage of insecurities, anger and stereotypes. Desean Terry lives sensitive Rakim, an intelligent, thoughtful but prickly young man, who succeeds in a world that routinely judges him according to racial stereotype.
In a scene, white hot with eroticism, Helen strips off her top and surrenders to her longing for Rakim, only to pull away in self-horror moments later.
Seared by the force of frustrated love, they fall into Valdes-Aran's choreography of magnetic exorcism, as they hurl abuse at each other in a dance still informed by desire: "We should've nuked all you Japs;" "Niggers and flies, I despise." The play ends with the possibility of hope.
This fascinating multi-media production accomplishes much with little, under Valdes-Aran's gifted direction. In a composition designed by Fred Carl, on-stage percussionist Marc Anderson pings bowls, rattles a grater, pours water from a jug and rips cloth to create sound effects that coincide with emotions. When Helen opens an imagined window to drop her door key into the street for Rakim, Anderson tosses a key on stage. Like projected stereotypes, Gwinup's video projects onto the characters, as well as onto the back mirror.
Murakoshi's script sometimes sings with lyricism, sometimes cuts back to poetic leanness and, in a play about identity, it brings into glancing focus the crisis of national identity in the face of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
Don't let Slippery When Wet slip by unseen. This is exciting theater.
Slippery When Wet February 4 - 27, 2005. Thursdays 7:30 p.m. Fridays 8:00 p.m. Saturdays 2:00p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Sundays 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets $30 - $55. Penumbra Theatre, 270, North Kent Street, St. Paul. Call 651-224-3180. www.penumbratheatre.org.