Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review: A Play of the Past for the Present

By Michael Block

They say history repeats itself. Fads and trends may have their heyday but they’ll inevitably return in some fashion. But then there are moments when something you may believe is fresh isn’t really. It’s been there for quite some time. Something just bolstered it to the mainstream. The drag, queer, and trans culture and community has a rich history. In today’s age of RuPaul’s Drag Race, that history, equipped with lingo and all, has made a reemergence. In Pia Scala-Zankel’s blisteringyl authentic Street Children, we are transported to a time when being different was not only looked down upon, it was downright dangerous. But the power of family can lift the lowest of spirits.
Presented by Vertigo Theater Co. at the New Ohio, Street Children captures the lives of the denizens of the lower Hudson Piers in 1988. The inciting incident is the untimely death of the beloved Gina. Angela, Jamie, and Terrence grieve for their fallen sister but no one said grieving is easy. Time doesn’t’ stand still as the trio must find a way to move on in a world that challenges them. Despite being derivative of a time, there was a whole sense of truth and honesty in Scala-Zankel’s words. Street Children never reaches camp as it is pure and raw depicting the dangerous world of sex, drugs, and morality in the late 80s LGBTQ scene. Street Children is one of those plays that is bound to have a prosperous future. It’s a story that needs to be told and heard. And with a future in mind, the script can be even tighter and even stronger. With the vantage of three stories in aftermath, it’s ironic that the flashbacks were the strongest beats. It brought out an exuberant amount of fire in the characters. The past truly informs the present. Though it’s the end of the play, seeing Gina and Jamie’s first ever interaction was beautiful. Seeing that moment for Angela and Terrence is particularly desired. It would help Scala-Zankel strengthen the trio’s arcs. As it stands now, Jamie’s story has a clear beginning middle and end. The other two have a middle and an end. Aside from the fallen angel, the most captivating character journey was that of Angela. The backstory and subsequent familiar future has a tight grip on your heart. But, without spoiling too much, the unfortunate event that Angela faces in her downfall is more than heartbreaking. It hits harder because it feels far too early in the play’s voyage. Pushing it back just a tad further may be beneficial with the way flashbacks are incorporated. Scala-Zankel gives us glimpses of the tight-nit families and subculture that formed in this time. And dramaturgically, it’s a remarkable feat.
photo by Ted Alcorn
Director Jenna Worsham captured the time with great ease. The ambiance was set as the audience comes in. Though, if you’re not a fan of herbal cigarettes, prepare to smell them for quite some time. Worsham established a stunning physical lexicon for her ensemble. This world moved fluidly. From sashaying through the ruins to the vocabulary of the vogue, Worsham’s ensemble was united. Where Worsham could have done more was utilizing the ensemble in a more purposeful manner. Wafting in the wings is fine but it teetered on high school musical extra cast meandering. By adding figures in the shadows, it heightened the atmosphere but it needed to be felt by the primary focal characters. Worsham took reality into the forefront of her direction. What could have been stronger was the realism when it came to prop use. While it could have been due to a boom box that no longer served its purpose, when everything is riddled in reality, not physically pushing the buttons or playing with the tape deck takes you out for those many split seconds. Though not perfectly real, scenic designer Angelica Borrero transported the audience into the seedy graffiti-filled piers of the past. Utilizing the outskirts of The New Ohio allowed the great expanse to rightly overwhelm the intimacy of the story. From neon to “Dynasty” shoulder pads, costume designer Bernat Buscato brought the best, and worst, of the decade to the stage. Lighting designer Kate Bashore didn’t quite capture time and location as well as she could have but the transitions were tight and sharp. Daniel Melnick provided an incredible sound design, navigating reality.
There were some exemplary performances within the cast of Street Children. Far and away, the performance of the night belongs to JP Moraga as Angela. Moraga’s honesty and gravity in balancing the varied lives of Angela was illuminating. Angela is a complex persona and Moraga found a complete character within. As the angelic keeper of the beats Gina, Mj Rodriguez was radiant. She gave a captivating performance that left you wanting more Gina material. The way she carried herself onstage was evocative of a star on the rise. Taking on the ingĂ©nue role, Eve Lindley’s Jamie was simply stated. Like a delicate porcelain doll, Lindley found grace in Jamie without feeling false. Victor Almanzar as Terrence was hit or miss. In a way, his characterization felt closer to caricature. The excessive bursts of fury, whether written in or an acting choice, defied a complete story arc for Terrence.
There are uninformed people out there who didn’t know the history of the community. RuPaul didn’t invent the catchphrases and culture we’ve come to champion. There is a tremendous amount of lost souls and determined warriors who have stories that helped shape the bright future. But in today’s America, the struggle of acceptance in our society is ever present. Street Children is a necessary story that does more than bring awareness of a past. It’s a teaching tool that can inform our future.