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A CurtainUp Review
By Charles Wright
Orange Julius concerns Julius (Stephen Payne), a Vietnam War veteran who's dying from long-term effects of Agent Orange. It's a poetic drama about a working class family, narrated (like The Glass Menagerie) by a son.
The production is impeccably cast, with four seasoned New York stage actors — Payne, Ruy Iskandar, Irene Sofia Lucio, and Mary Testa — plus a fifth performer whose principal credits are as a dramatist.
That fifth performer is Jess Barbagallo. Honored with awards and fellowships for writing during graduate school and afterwards, Barbagallo has had plays produced at distinguished New York City venues such as Dixon Place and the Brick Theater. In Orange Julius, Barbagallo more than meets the challenges of a complex, lynchpin role in another author's work, managing to represent the character convincingly at various ages from early childhood upward.
Barbagallo's Nut is the son who, like Tom in Menagerie, not only narrates the proceedings but also explains his father to the audience. Unlike Tom, Nut guides the audience on a non-chronological journey, skipping repeatedly forward and backward in time.
Nut also transports the action to Vietnam during wartime; but, since he was born after his father's military duty, these scenes present a Southeast Asia that's cobbled together from war movies such as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon.
There's something that needs to be said here, and it's noteworthy that it didn't come up at the beginning: Nut is transgender. What's also noteworthy (to repeat that word) is that Nut is a transgender character in a play that's not first and foremost about transgender issues. However, Nut's gender orientation isn't a non-issue either, since, in Julius's eyes, Nut is a daughter not a son.
Kreimendahl handles the disconnection between child and father with judicious brush strokes, leaving much for the actors to fill in. Payne and Barbagallo make the most of what the playwright has given them. In their forceful, nearly pitch-perfect performances, they convey an abundance of subtext.
Orange Julius charges through a whole family saga, but the play is primarily about the chapter that will conclude with Julius's death. For several crucial years in Nut's childhood and adolescence, Julius and Nut's mother, France (Testa), were separated, with Julius largely absent from Nut's life. Now Julius is back, but his ailments, all attributable to Agent Orange poisoning, are debilitating and exacerbate his customary emotional detachment. The principal action of the play which revolves around care-giving and reminiscence, evokes themes of disappointment, nostalgia, recrimination, and regret.
The co-producers have given Orange Julius a top-flight production in Rattlestick's tiny venue on Waverly Place. Kate Noll's scenic design, an open space with garage door at the back, permits fast scene changes for the script's short scenes and numerous locations. Noll uses the garage door, which can be raised by the actors, to expand and transform the playing area, most notably to create a wartime dreamscape for the Vietnam scenes. The work of the other designers — especially, Barbara Samuels (lighting), Joey Moro (projections), and Palmer Hefferan (sound) — enhances Noll's efforts.
Under Dustin Wills' direction, the cast keeps the action moving at high velocity. The pace prevents the production from sliding toward the Slough of Despond when Kreimendahl ventures into particularly depressing territory. It also distracts attention from the elliptical nature of the playwright's dialogue and scenic structure.
Barbagallo and Payne bear the bulk of the acting burden. Though limited in stage time, Testa (known especially for her work in musicals such as Queen of the Mist and On the Town) offers a persuasive portrait of a woman determined to be reliable but weary of the hardscrabble life she didn't mean to have.
In a mother-son scene that's inspired in its off-hand poignancy, Testa's France tells Nut "I married your Father because I thought he could teach me how to have fun. But I don't think anyone can really teach you that."
Lucio as Nut's sister and Iskandar as a soldier round out the cast. Iskandar also appears briefly (and to great effect) as a woman masquerading as a man in a drag show at a lesbian bar. It's an intricately observed turn, intriguing to watch but beyond simple description.
Kreimendahl, a Kentucky native, developed Orange Julius during a residency at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwrights Conference in 2012. The play was staged in 2015 by the Moxie Theatre Company of San Diego. The New York premiere is an amalgam of accomplished writing, effective design, and sensitive performances; yet, when the production's energy, seemingly endless, finally subsides in the final minutes of the play, there's something missing and it's something important. Despite an epiphany of sorts that permits Nut to forgive Julius and connect with him, at least to a degree, the play fails to stir an emotional response to match its considerable psychological insight or to achieve a sense of catharsis.
This is where a spectator is likely to think of the emotional power of The Glass Menagerie and many of the plays it has inspired that depend, at least to a large extent, on the cumulative effect of linear structure or the involving nature of substantial scenes. By contrast, the brief, vignette-ish scenes of Orange Julius and the quick leaps to and fro in time are "alienating" (to borrow a term from Brecht) and dilute the spectator's engagement.
There's a lot that's pitiable here, but the current production, admirable as it is, elicits little in the way of emotional awe. And if this fine cast can't break hearts with Kreimendahl's material, no one can.
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Orange Julius by Basil Kreimendahl
Director: Dustin Wills
Cast: Jess Barbagallo (Nut); Ruy Iskandar (Ol' Boy); Crimp (Irene Sofia Lucio); Stephen Payne (Julius); Mary Testa (France)
Set Designer: Kate Noll
Costume Designer: Montana Levi Blanco Lighting Designer: Barbara Samuels
Projection Designer: Joey Moro Props Designer: Raphael Mishler
Production Stage Manager: Nicole Marconi
Running Time: 85 minutes (without intermission)
Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Page 73
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place
>From 1/10/17; opened 1/22/17; closing 2/12/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at January 18th press performance
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