We are all destined to be orphans at some point, given the usual progression of life spans. And it can be a shocking and transforming experience when our parents leave us alone in the world.
But the orphan at the center of Brainpeople by Jose Rivera, now being presented by Convergence-Continuum, treats her psychic wounds in a bizarre and novel way. And it makes for some exhilarating theater despite some bumps in the road.
Rivera is the author of Each Day Dies With Sleep and References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, both of which have been produced by Con-Con in their own uniquely intimate environs and style. Rivera is masterful at easing the audience into a situation, then gradually changing the parameters and expectations. This results in an evening of theater that makes you think, without you even knowing it's happening.
Mayannah is a Puerto Rican heiress throwing a small dinner party in her flat overlooking Los Angeles. But this is no ordinary L.A., since there are tanks and armored sweeps disrupting the streets below, indicating a military crackdown of some kind. And these are no ordinary dinner guests: Each of the women are strangers to Mayannah; they are there only because they have been promised $20,000 each if they stay through dessert.
Rosemary is a black woman with more personalities than a season of Love Boat, bouncing from an aggressive street gal to an old woman to several others. Ani is a bit older and a lot quieter, continually questioning why she accepted the invitation while analyzing the questionable sanity of her host and co-guest.
We soon discover that this is an anniversary dinner for Mayannah, marking the day her parents were devoured by a tiger on an African safari. And it just so happens the main course is a heaping platter of tiger meat, served by the still-grieving orphan in the hope that "we are what we eat."
These three women are all searching for something. As Mayannah notes, "Hunger is why we're here." But it's not a meal they hunger for — it's love, or peace of mind, or a safe place to call home.
As we watch Rosemary click from one persona to another, Rivera forces us to contemplate the varied characters we all adopt, to one degree or another, even if we aren't quite as shattered as Rose is. She is tormented and needs a solution before she goes over the edge. The other two women, by contrast, are well ensconced in their own identities. But neither is happy with the situation, and each is seeking a way out.
Ani hopes the cash she bags on this night will help her escape the terror all around the city and the misery of her past. But Mayannah has her sights set on a much more profound escape plan — one that will return her to a place where she once felt secure.
Tapping into magical realism and a Latin sense of the surreal, playwright Rivera crafts three characters who should be totally engrossing. When this production attains those heights, it fairly sizzles. But there are a few less-than-compelling moments, usually the result of acting shortfalls.
As Mayannah, the splendid performer Laurel Johnson is working slightly outside her comfort zone. First, and least important, the porcelain-skinned Johnson looks about as Puerto Rican as Carrot Top, even with a lush brunette hairpiece.
More significant: Johnson doesn't deliver the mysterious level of gravitas, from the beginning, that conveys how completely she is in charge of the proceedings. Without establishing that, the surprises that come later resound less powerfully than they might. Still, her heartfelt reflections on her parents work well.
Kristi Little has the most demanding role as an urban Sybil, and she veers from spectacular to barely there. When essaying a supposedly British personality, her Liverpudlian accent sounds more like an Australian trying to speak American. But her street tough is sharp and brazen, and her final characterization, as a man, is absolutely convincing.
Ani channels many of the audience's feelings as she intermittently questions what's going on, and Laura Starnik nails these with deadpan aplomb. As it turns out, her backstory is equally weird as the other two, and their three lives converge in unexpected ways.
That is the setup for the perfect (in retrospect) conclusion, which is incisively acted by all three, and which shows there are many ways to fashion a family unit. Especially in the magical world of Jose Rivera.
The set, designed by director Clyde Simon, is cozy and a little crazy, with crucifixes dotting the upscale brick walls, and candles and other religious relics on shelves and tabletops. It is an environment at once familiar enough to make you relax, yet with enough edge to make you wonder what's really going on. The only disappointment is the prop tiger meat, which is a brown lump lacking in exotic touches.
Performed at a sedate pace that builds in intensity, the not-particularly-well-titled Brainpeople makes up for small onstage lapses with an evocation of larger truths. And that's a theatrical meal you can savor for quite some time.
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