Center of the Margins Festival at Mixed Blood Theatre

Nic Zapko and Alexandria Wailes as Dag and Kayleen in "Gruesome Playground Injuries."

GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES

Mixed Blood Theatre has opened an ambitious three-play series they call Center of the Margins with the goal of “exploring the complex world of disability,” the publicity explains. The first play, Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries has a somewhat misleading title; the most “gruesome” injuries did not happen on a playground; in fact, we only see the effects of that damage.

It is a play full of pathos and humor, wherein the two characters, Dag (Nic Zapko) and Kayleen (Alexandria Wailes), wrestle with their demons—and with each other’s—via  the string of Dag’s self-induced and outrageous mishaps.

Written for two hearing actors, the play suffers nothing by its performance in ASL (American Sign Language). In fact, Zapko, in particular, demonstrates the nuances of a skilled and sensitive dancer in physicalizing the role. I found myself only glancing at the projected dialogue at times, because I knew what was going on without it, and she was just so engaging to watch. Zapko’s Dag becomes a lovable character because she loves so unconditionally, and in spite of her gruesome injuries, she becomes a beautiful person because of it.

The larger question has to do with another casting decision: the script calls for a man and a woman, and in this production both characters are women. Is the story about how their own personal demons keep them from accepting and reciprocating true love, or is it about that and sexual ambivalence? In this play, I think it makes a huge difference and explains a lot.

If it were a love story that is consummated, it might not be an issue at all, regardless of the casting. But in this case, the nature of each character’s sexuality defines the outcome of the plot. For me. I can only tell you what I saw. As much as Kayleen acknowledges Dag’s love for her, and loves her in return, Kayleen’s sexual history shows just bad choices and turmoil. For Dag, her own sexuality, at least, is clear. There has to be a reason why they don’t just get together and stay together. This production has added a layer of complexity to that question.

Wailes’ task was daunting, given that inherent murkiness. The messed up girl who chronically throws up, grows up to be a really messed up woman, but one who is still capable of recognizing and acknowledging Dag’s unflinching love, even through a haze of alcohol and later the drugs meant to treat her condition. Wailes has created a sad but appealing character out of the disaster that is Kayleen’s life, making Dag’s love for her strangely believable.

Aditi Kapil directs this visually spare production. The animated, projected line drawings paired nicely with the play being signed rather than spoken, and Nicolas Carter added moody, contemporary electric harp underscore for the rapid set changes.  The series runs through November 27. Recommended.

Janet Preus

 

 

Brittany Bradford, Taj Ruler and Signe Harriday in My Secret Language Of Wishes. Photo by Rich Ryan.

MY SECRET LANGUAGE OF WISHES

It is unlikely that you will see a more affecting, fervent and purer performance this season than that given by the radiant Brittany Bradford in My Secret Language Of Wishes (part of Mixed Blood‘s Center Of The Margins Festival, through Nov 27).  Ms. Bradford plays Rose, a 17 year old girl suffering from cerebral palsy (with attendant seizures and a steadily weakening heart).  Bradford portrays Rose’s disability with unflinching and utterly convincing detail.  Things we take for granted – walking, talking, even breathing – require superhuman effort from Rose.  Yet she displays a gentleness, courage, a zest for life – and nary a trace of self-pity.  “I want someone to kiss kiss kiss me.”  This is marvelous work.

Much of Rose’s pluck derives from her relationship with Dakota.  Played with feisty play-driving brilliance by Taj Ruler, Dakota mothers Rose, cajoles her into survival – and gives her sustaining emotional resilience.  “I love the way the way Kota smells,” rhapsodizes Rose.  Dakota counters with, “I never did anything as good as taking care of her.” New Yorkers to the core, these two are spunky and gutsy, funny, a mother/daughter unit such as you’ve never before seen.  Great praise to the actors – and to director Marion McClinton.

I wish I could wax as enthusiastic about the play.  Playwright Cori Thomas‘s My Secret Language Of Wishes doesn’t stint with emotionality.  Indeed, every scene of this who-will-adopt-me drama culminates in go-for-the-jugular emotionality.  Many of these moments work, but many do not.  The play is overlong, contrived (I’m an adoptive parent myself and I was appalled by the leaps of logic the play demands), and often over-wrought.  Still, there are moments of divine loveliness – due largely to Ruler and to Bradford.

Signe Harriday does nice work as Jo, the lawyer who gets pulled into Rose’s drama.  Her performance is focused and sharp.  As Sylvia, Mo Perry has some comic presence at the beginning, but she then unfortunately fades into the background.  I can’t reveal the discovery we make about Brenda but I can tell you that Jevetta Steele plays her with passion and fervor.  Nora Montañez is an actor of poise and great power but here she is asked to play a off-puttingly shrill character.  This is an area of the piece that playwright Thomas should, in my opinion, seriously consider omitting.

My Secret Language Of Wishes isn’t a perfect play but the performances of Bradford and Ruler elevate it and, indeed, make it a must-see.

John Olive

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

 

 

Skyler Nowinski and Regina Marie Williams in On The Spectrum. Photo by Rich Ryan.

ON THE SPECTRUM

Ken LaZebnik’s engaging World Premiere On the Spectrum is featured as part of Mixed Blood’s Center of The Margins Festival, through November 27th). Commissioned by Mixed Blood Theatre, and directed by its Artistic Director Jack Reuler, this taut drama explores the complex world of living on the spectrum and wrestling with the difficult question: is autism a disability or a difference? It features a fantastic cast that is headed by Skyler Nowinski who plays Cormac (Mac for short), a young man with Asperger’s. Through Mr. LaZebnik’s terrific script we are rapt by how he demonstrates through Mr. Nowinski and the terrific Laura Robinson (an actor with autism spectrum disorder) the distinctions between life with Asperger’s and life with Autism.

When we meet Mac he is in the midst of preparing to study for his LSAT’s to go to law school when his world begins to crumble around him as his mother, Elizabeth (played with amazing aplomb by Regina Marie Williams) is on the verge of losing her job. Despite his mother urging him not to get a part-time job to help out, Mac disobeys her. He connects online with Ms. Robinson’s Iris who has Autism and decides to hire him to work on her web site. As their working relationship continues to grow a love story begins to develop between the two of them that feels both honest and authentic. One of the most poignant moments in this piece happens when Cormac’s character must meet Iris face-to-face who is initially embarrassed to meet him because she is “lower functioning” than he is. This was one of the most touching moments I had seen on stage in quite a while and encapsulated the physical and emotional roller coaster that love is within the fragility of living on the spectrum.

Because the love story is the focal point of the story the conflict regarding Elizabeth losing her job begins to lose a bit of steam towards the end, but we are so engaged by Mac and Iris that this is forgivable. According to the program notes this is the third play that Mr. LaZebnik has done on autism with Mixed Blood Theatre and he demonstrates in this story that just because it’s a play about those living on the spectrum it can still be funny as well.

Jack Reuler’s keen direction keeps the play moving apace with the fantastic cast while Daniel Roth’s fabulous projection design in conjunction with the sound design by Katharine Horowitz help to create the world of not only Iris’s web site known as “The Otherworld”, but also it is the stand-in for the world that she lives in inside her apartment away from the world hiding behind her online identity and her Proloquo machine until Mac comes into her life and they each force each other out of their comfort zones.

On the Spectrum is a standout in the Center of the Margins Festival. This play is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. Recommended.

Christina Ham

 

 

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