POSTCARD FROM THE EDGE

The production is directed with aplomb by Mark DeMichele, who clearly understands his playwright. Ten previous productions of Shepard's work are listed in his program bio. The cast is uniformly imaginative, and special kudos go to Mike Traylor, whose sense of rhythm informed his arias with a special understanding of the blend of drama and music. I also enjoyed the booming bluster of Charles St. Clair and the dumb earnestness of Gene Meeks as the bumbling detectives. Ken Love plays Niles with authority.

Suicide in B Flat tantalizes the imagination with playful parries, but lacking a full-fledged drama, one is left hungering for the mature Shepard of Buried Child or Fool for Love. The master of the American avant-garde has only sharpened our appetite to devour the concomitant feast of imagery on display at Planet Earth.

A kaleidoscopic portrait of a dysfunctional family, Cocks Have Claws and Wings to Fly moves through multiple settings, including Pedro and Alfredo's sophisticated home, Mama's rustic dwelling deep in south Texas, St. Francis Church and "a place only a few can see." The ultrareligious Mama Mirta, a licensed nurse who used to hit herself in the head with a frying pan, has come to visit her successful son, Pedro, an accountant in Austin. She has brought along with her the shell-shocked Vietnam vet Tio, her late husband's uncle, whom she plans to marry, and by whom she is pregnant. She has also brought along her son Guero, a troubled hallucinatory druggie who has had difficulty accepting the untimely death of his father, and is haunted by echoes from Gielgud's recording of Hamlet. Guero has long, blond hair and is thought to be a bastard because of his fairness. Sofia, the younger sister of the two brothers, is a senior at the University of Texas, where she majors in psychology and is happily cohabitating with an Anglo hunk named Scott. For the duration of Mama's visit, Pedro's lover Alfredo is displaced unwillingly to the Holiday Inn, because Mama would prefer to ignore her son's homosexuality.

Even before the visitation of the unwelcome family, the two homosexual lovers are experiencing a strained time in their relationship, due to the desire of Alfredo to father a child with a surrogate mother, and Pedro's reluctance to accept the responsibilities of parenthood.

In terms of plot, not much happens beyond the revelations of the complex circumstances in which these characters are mired, but much of the imagery is very funny and oddly moving. The magical evening begins with an angel, a beautiful young woman with flowing, silky hair, who gracefully glides around the stage to a choral cacophony, guiding us through a dumb show/dance that introduces us to the large cast in psychological gestures of primal imagery. We are soon treated to wonderfully idiosyncratic detail. The family eternally eats KFC, much to the disgust of vegetarian Alfredo. Guero visits the cemetery to talk to his dead father and read him the comics. As a child, Sofia was afraid of the toilet, thinking "the doo-doo spiders" would get her. A dumb show reveals how Tio lost his soul in Vietnam; he uses a guitar as a machine gun, while the angel crouches in a coolie hat. From time to time, Mama runs about brandishing a crucifix and a squirt bottle labeled "Holy H2O."

Contrasting with this madness is a sobering angst. The play floats eerily among the spheres of dreams, visions and hallucinations. Can too much prayer cause madness? Are priests truly only "pimps selling the meat of Christ"? It's a crazy world, and we are told that those who live as if it weren't are themselves crazy. Sofia challenges her pregnant mother: "Why do you want to bring another opinion into the world?" Much of this imagery is very effectively staged by director Peter James Cirino. Vivid scenes of wrestling, biting and struggling are given a convincing physical reality that rivets our belief. Crying "I don't want to live," Pedro struggles with his lover in a tortured embrace, alternately longing to comfort and love and hurt and reject. The impossibility of sustaining a single impulse in the face of the complexity of their situation is deeply moving.

Rex Whisler and David Akin make sympathetic lovers, but most memorable is the vibrant performance of Edee Trejo as sister Sofia. Trejo, shaking her luxurious dark curls, is always honest and unpredictable, with an originality evocative of Marisa Tomei. As for the Mama, one longs to see an actress of stature play this virtuoso role (someone like Antonia Rey or Olympia Dukakis), but Kimberli A. Davis-Baker copes courageously, if not skillfully. A lively debate might be sparked by the question of whether the play has been well-served by Planet Earth's policy of ethnically blind casting. It might be argued that some fine details of Latino life in Texas have been glossed over, but perhaps the play has gained in universality by not being confined to a specific ethnic origin. If, like Sam Shepard, you yearn for images that soar on wings of surprise, fly over to Planet Earth for a play that is out of this world.

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