Review: Freedom, NY (Teatro Vista)

     
     

Subtle play offers powerful epiphanies of diversity and trust

     
     

(from left) Cheryl Lynn Bruce is Justice Mayflower, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s Freedom, NY.  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

  
Teatro Vista presents
   
  
Freedom, NY
  
  
Written by Jennifer Barclay
Directed by Joe Minoso
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 12  |  tickets: $20-25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

America is always struggling to change immigration into integration. But not all the battles are fought at frontiers. Far from any border patrols and electric fences, Freedom, NY depicts a less violent but more common interracial conflict. Presented with warmth and finally crowned in concord, Jennifer Barclay’s new play focuses on next-door neighbors, two black and one Latino. Here a psychological border, the kind we carry wherever we go, must be overcome before misunderstandings lead to worse.

(from left) Paige Collins is 12-year-old Portia, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays Portia’s grandmother and protector Justice Mayflower, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY." (Photo: Eddie Torres) The play’s divisions between neighbors—and members of minorities–are more mental than physical. On one side Mayflower, a flinty African-American justice of the peace, tends her marigolds and protectively isolates her 12-year-old granddaughter Portia against all adversity. A year ago, a school shooting and a child abduction persuaded Mayflower to cut Portia off from the outside world. (Apparently, Mayflower’s tough-love approach already frightened off her daughter, who fled to Nebraska.)

Symbolizing that outside world is newly arrived Gabriel, a recent immigrant who works as school janitor, hoping to save enough to bring his family from Mexico. Meanwhile, he brightly decorates his bare yard for the “Dia de Los Muertos,” where he will symbolically bury his mother. (She had dreamed of coming to Freedom but wasn’t able to make it alive.)

Telling Gabriel that the neighbors “don’t like how you look,” Mayflower puts up a fence between them as we wonder what it will take to get her to take it down.

The economically written, 80-minute drama depicts how Mayflower, less accepting than curious and pent-up Portia, overcomes her xenophobia and distrust of diversity. She finally realizes that Gabriel is not connected with child abductions or illegal burials. There are no world-shaking revelations here. What we see, honestly and persuasively, are just quiet efforts to preserve decency despite change. These shape the world more than elections or even revolution.

Minoso’s sensitive staging builds tiny epiphanies into moments of truth that cumulatively matter. Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays stubborn but well-intentioned Mayflower with tough tenacity and enough defensiveness to show she’s human beneath her fear. Desmin Borges’ Gabriel, almost too vibrantly colorful for the conditions, brims with open-hearted trust, even as his apostrophes to his dead mother question his stability. Most amazing is the awesomely natural performance of Paige Collins as questioning Portia. She represents America’s future, when we finally prove that, yes, Rodney King, we can all get along.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

(from left) Paige Collins is Portia, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY".  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

Teatro Vista’s Freedom, NY continues through June 12th at their new venue, Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont),  with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors), and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online at teatrovista.org. Freedom, NY runs approximately 75 minutes.      All photos by Eddie Torres.

  
  

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REVIEW: The Old Settler (Writers Theatre)

Harlem drama ignites with Cheryl Lynn Bruce at the helm

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Writers’ Theatre presents:

The Old Settler

 

by John Henry Redwood
directed by Ron OJ Parsons
through March 28th (more info)

review by Oliver Sava

The title of John Henry Redwood‘s play refers to a woman past her thirties who has yet to find a husband and has no romantic prospects. Harlem, 1946, and that woman is Elizabeth Borny, pious, dignified, and played with great dimensionality by Cheryl Lynn Bruce. When she finds herself the object of handsome young boarder Husband Witherspoon’s (Kelvin Rolston, Jr.) affections, Elizabeth must overcome the great heartbreak of her past, an event she holds her sister Quillie (Wandachristine) responsible for.

old-settler011 Capturing both the joy of young love and the world-weariness of age, Bruce gives Elizabeth a young heart with an old soul. Bruce has a natural presence and charisma on stage, but her biggest accomplishment is her ability to portray a character that lacks the same features that make her such a memorable performer. Compared to the fast and loose women that are quickly becoming the norm, including Husband’s lost fiancee Lou Bessie (Alexis J. Rogers), Elizabeth is a relic of a more innocent time, a less desirable time, and Bruce makes her plain yet still captivating.

As a romance with Husband begins, Elizabeth blossoms into a new woman, wearing tight-fitting clothes, beautifully designed by Nan Cibula-Jenkins, and staying out until daybreak drinking champagne. These later scenes are when Bruce is able to finally let loose, especially in the confrontations she has with Quillie and Lou Bessie, allowing the emotional intensity of budding love to overcome her moral convictions. It is a mesmerizing character journey, and Bruce is ably assisted by her supporting cast.

Wandachristine finds a fine balance between sass and anxiety as Quillie, and while her relationship with Elizabeth is a source of drama, more importantly she is able to provide a good dose of humor in the production. Her constant fear of home-invading rapists and general disdain for what Harlem has become lighten the mood of the play, but she is more than able to hold her own when threatened.

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Lou Bessie shares a similarly brassy nature, but amplified by her experiences with the seedy figures of the Harlem social scene. When she enters Elizabeth’s home it is with a confidence that is hard to resist, and the major conflict of the play becomes whether or not Husband can overcome her influence. Husband, goofy yet charming, is a fish out of water in New York City, and Elizabeth serves as a connection to his southern roots. Rolston, Jr. has a sincerity that makes his relationship with Elizabeth very organic, but his naiveté ultimately proves his undoing.

Directed by Ron OJ Parsons, the ensemble and design team create a vision of 1946 Harlem that feels very authentic.Jack Magaw‘s set design allows for a wide range of movement, and the details like doilies on the armrests of the couch help make the time period even clearer. The Old Settler is a very solid production that is a great showcase for its leading lady’s talents, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce gives a great performance.

Rating: ★★★

 

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REVIEW: Victory Gardens’ “The Snow Queen”

"The Snow Queen” Rocks, But Will It Endure?

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Victory Gardens presents:

The Snow Queen

adapted by Frank Galati, Michael Barrow Smith and Blair Thomas
directed by Jim Corti

thru December 27th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson, best friends Kai (Andrew Keltz) and Gerda (Leslie Ann Sheppard) enjoy playing together in a garden above the city. Once winter separates them, they must stay in doors, but they still wave to each through 1640391_height370_width560 frosty windows. Brought together one night by Gerda’s grandmother, the two hear for the first time about the Snow Queen, who longs for a little boy to keep her warm. Caught up in a magic spell, Kai is abducted by the Snow Queen and Gerda must embark upon a life-changing odyssey to get Kai back.

I was startled by something that perusing reviews from past years had not prepared me for–composer and lyricist Michael Barrow Smith relies on rock opera for the most powerful numbers accompanying this children’s tale. As the Storyteller, returning Cheryl Lynn Bruce remains the undisputed mistress of ceremonies. However, Smith benefits mightily from the talents of Sue Demel, of the Sons of the Never Wrong, and Barbara Barrow, of the Old Town School of Folk Music, to rock out the arias reserved for the grandmother, the Snow Queen, the Enchantress, and Robber girl. These, by far, are the production’s most haunting and dynamic moments.

Other musical genres bring levity and fun to the proceedings—honky-tonk for Bob Goins reindeer and blues for the gang that waylays Gerda on her quest. But not every musical genre that Smith pulls out of his sleeve is as successful. In fact, the effect can be rather hodge-podge; some moments venturing into Sondheim-esque lyrics subvert direct appeal to a younger audience. Even if those moments are intended for adult consumption, they contribute to the patchwork feel of the overall production.

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Visually, the show still amazes with puppetry designed by Blair Thomas and Meredith Miller. While in charge of most of the puppet performance, as Elves Jackson Evans, Genevieve Garcia, and Nicole Pellegrino bring joyful energy to their storytelling. Curiously, the production lags in demonstrating a stronger emotional connection onstage between Kai and Gerda, so that the stakes can be raised for the story’s loss and radical journey. Whether this is a result of new direction from Jim Corti or just the introduction of Sheppard as a new member to the cast is uncertain, but hopefully it will be rectified in the course of the run. Best friends can’t return if they were never best friends to begin with.

Rating: ★★★

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