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A CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
This is what my theatre companion said immediately upon exiting Yemaya's Belly -- "I may need you to explain a few things to me and from looking around at the rest of the audience, I think most people were as confused as I was. What was the point of it?" Perhaps every theatre's nightmare.
Now my theatre companion is a very educated individual. A literature major, in fact. I suggested that the point was to tell a story. A magical, poetic kind of story. Unfortunately, I had to admit, the story wasn't all that magical. In the end, I had to concede that Signature Theatre's new show is pretty much an ABC After School Special meets the movie The Blue Lagoon. An analogy that is pretty much every theatre's nightmare...
A quick synopsis: Little nine or ten year old Jesus lives in an impoverished rural village with his parents on a Cuba-like island run by a dictator. He is a boy who constantly asks questions, much to his parents chagrin. We are led to believe he asks so many questions because he is so intelligent. He also has a talent for winning at dominoes. When he beats his Uncle Jelin, the older man is forced to make good on their bet and take Jesus into the city. There the little boy sees sights that he has never seen before and experiences "refrigerated Coca-Cola" for the first time. His imagination and intelligence are ignited. Unfortunately while he and his Uncle are playing hooky in town, back at their home a sudden fire has ignited that devastates their tiny village. When the two return, little Mulo (he has rechristened himself) is an orphan. At this point you may be thinking that someone should be calling Disney, so the feel good people can put this show On Ice. Maybe they could get Dorothy Hamill out of retirement...
Not to give anything away, but little Mulo then decides to run away and go to America. (At this point you may be tempted to shout out "Elian! Elian!") When he meets Maya, a young (14 year old?) girl searching for her mother, the two set off on their adventure. At which point, the little boy you thought was nine or ten suddenly enters puberty. Maybe they mature faster on a Cuba-like island run by a dictator.
While the language is quite poetic and the staging and set -- as well as the acting -- are all wonderful, the show's greatest difficulty is in its slow-paced timing and within playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes' circular writing. Hovering around ninety minutes, the play unfortunately has no intermission, so you are kind of trapped wishing little Mulo would be washed out to sea. Around the forty-five minute mark you realize -- the point of the show is the art of storytelling -- that's not the story being told. The story, like the island where its characters live, isn't really going anywhere. And if it does actually get someplace, you pretty much lost interest around the point Mulo filches some Spam...
There are bright spots though...Jose Aranda makes a great Jesus/Mulo -- he's engaging, charming and sprite-like. Saskia de Vries, as the ocean goddess Yemaya and as young Maya, offers a distraught daughter lonely for her mother's love. Joseph W. Lane, as Tico, is quite touching as he obsessively cradles rice in a pathetic attempt to connect with his dead wife...
Stephanie Nelson's tiered set is wonderful with its watery parts and its shades of blue with white banners. Jason Thompson's lighting plays off the stage very well, while David Maddox' music and sound design make us feel like we are floating at sea or in a dream. Which may be Yemaya's Belly's calling -- to be a story told with the audience's eyes closed. Perhaps a book on CD, that way we could truly engage our imaginations and meld into Ms. Hudes' poetic writing as we sit in a room with candles, the sound of wind, rain and ocean waves lapping at our daydreaming minds...
>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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