Penguin Island Theatre
at Stage Left Theatre
For seven months I thought I lived in Uptown. Then one evening about a month ago, I arrived home to find men in a utility truck affixing maroon banners to the streetlights. The banners announced that I was now living in "Buena Park: An Historic District."
I had two thoughts: Can a neighborhood undergo change so easily and quickly? And will my rent go up?
Reflections is a brief one-act by Gary Leonard that probes similar questions of transformation. Andrew (Tim Veach) and Mathilda (Jeanine Vogt) are a newly married couple wandering after dinner through the bad part of a city. Their lives are defined by business promotions and shopping and innocent frolicking amidst the city's squalor. When they stroll onstage, they talk romantically of discovering the city and themselves in a single evening. Giggling, they stumble across a man lying barefoot in a trash heap.
Andrew wants to go home immediately, but Mathilda objects, displaying the combination of curiosity and guilt typical of people nurtured in the suburbs' safety. She worries that the man (Timothy Ortmann) has no shoes, but she also says, "This could be exciting; he could be a king."
Kings don't make it a habit to grace trash heaps, but that hardly matters to Mathilda, and soon the bum awakens and engages the young couple in clever banter about the meaning of their lives. If when two people marry they promise to love and obey, the bum wonders which partner will obey the other. When they talk of the bum's missing shoes, they end up exploring what denotes civilization. Are shoes and credit cards all that separate the washed from the unwashed?
These symbols and ideas of identity are at the heart of this short play. And supported by an able cast, the exchanges were provocative and lively. But the script was so engaging at earlier points that the ending seemed anticlimactic, predictable.
This predictability may not be inappropriate, however, for a brief, single-idea play. And any letdown I felt was made up for by the performances. Jeanine Vogt gave Mathilda a delightful innocent wonder that suspended the audience's disbelief and allowed the play its success. Vogt never belied our sensation that anything is possible for the naive Mathilda. When the man rises up from the trash at Mathilda's suggestion, she truly believes that she has performed a civic duty.
Veach provided depth to a lightly drawn character. As the play progressed, Andrew's continual rejection of the strange man suggested the horror of recognition of another part of himself as much as disgust at the dirty surroundings. Ortmann passed convincingly through several stages of life: from a baby sleeping in the womb of the street, to a drunk repeating sentences like a parroting infant, to the angry youth posing troubling questions, and finally to the young man who, in confidence and strength, steps forward to marry and begin a career.
Christina Kirk's direction was quick and confident, never appearing to doubt the surreal transformations of the script.
Questions of personal identity also provide the basis for Hopscotch, the second one-act of the evening. But here the results felt tired and trite. Israel Horowitz's Hopscotch chronicles the surprise reunion of Elsa and Will ten years after Will abandoned the pregnant teenaged Elsa and fled to a new life.
Will (Dave Coral) finds Elsa (Tracy Callahan) in a playground one sunny afternoon. At first they talk as if they've never met, flirting playfully like strangers who've caught each other's eye. But soon it becomes clear that something else is. going on. There are suggestions that Elsa and Will have met before. Will seems at pains to explain why he's not married and what he does for a living; Elsa seems always to attack.
The ideas are intriguing: Can we hold people accountable for actions taken when they were naive and ignorant? Does time heal all wounds? And do people really change over time? Yet somehow these questions didn't engage me here.
This production became slow and ponderous as the dialogue became more and more metaphorical. Callahan in portrayed an Elsa full of bitterness at having been abandoned. Yet when she talked about how big her stomach was in high school--we later find she was pregnant, full of a potential new life--it came across as more of an aimless reverie about being fat. Will says he's a traveling manager for a company in the "destruction end of the construction business." Although I thought this an apt metaphor for the suffering he'd cause Elsa, and perhaps for the blunt manner in which many of us stumble through life, none of this was played up by the cast.
If the actors glossed over he play's metaphors, director Ken Mitten chose to hit us over the head with them, playing hopscotch quite literally. While Elsa and Will sparred with their words, the stage action focused on Elsa's chalk drawing of a hopscotch pattern and her stubborn attempts to skip through the game and reach "home."
I already knew that the goal of a game of hopscotch is to reach home. It wasn't a great leap to figure out what Elsa and Will might be seeking, and this made Mitten's direction seem slow and unenlightening. With an outcome so predictable, the play called for more imaginative staging to probe the deeper meanings in the dialogue. Even breaking up the hopscotch diagram and distributing its boxes around the stage might have demonstrated the difficulties these characters have in reaching home.
Certain segments did work well, particularly Elsa's description of the taunting sexual phone calls she made to the butcher in her town. After she had called him for 28 days, the butcher proclaimed his love for her but asked only for her phone number. And when she confronted him in his butcher shop, he was unable to acknowledge any part of the fantasy he had been playing. He could not stand to see her in person. In this passage, Callahan skillfully conveyed both how suffocating Elsa's domestic life is and how sacrosanct are the fantasies people employ to dream their way through the day.