Hometown: Chicago (Ravenswood)
What lenses or identities make your perspective as a writer unique?: The lenses that make up my perspective as a writer are that I’m a woman, feminist, editor, and dramaturg. I have a background in performance (music, theatre, dance, some orchestra), but nowadays focus on studying, critiquing and writing for or about theatre.
What is the purpose of arts criticism?: I think the purpose of arts criticism is constantly shifting. We’re in a period currently stuck between its past purpose versus its present demands. There’s a tug of war between the cisgender, white, male critics and the emerging, newer, diverse voices who’ve not been afforded a chance to build such an audience. Similarly to needing representation regarding racial and gender parity in all artistic disciplines, it’s important to see this shift especially in criticism. It cannot be emulated through writers, actors, or directors alone. This needs to sweep across all areas of artistic positions and leadership for such momentum to occur. It’s not just about who’s doing the work, but who’s reviewing it to influence audiences to see it or not.
Reviews (Most Recent First)
Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy
The kids aren’t alright in Teatro Vista’s Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy, and the adults aren’t faring much better. Playing at The Den Theatre as part of Chicago’s Destinos festival, artistic director Ricardo Gutiérrez and Cheryl Lynn Bruce helm a layered tale centering on the woes and wants of the Morales family in 1961 Phoenix, AZ. Evelina Fernández weaves many threads in crafting this family tapestry that loosens even as it struggles to sustain its fabric.
Spanning just under two hours, Hope offers a grave glimpse into the 1960s’. John F. Kennedy was the great white hope, gender stereotypes were our bread and butter in modeling adulthood and domestic abuse was a part of the marriage and parenting manual. The threat of nuclear war required children to practice ducking and covering in classrooms, not dissimilar to how students now participate in active shooter drills. Living was in a time of absolutes where the institutions and instincts we trusted were shaken, but not yet transformed.
Fernández spins these stewing personal revolutions across a variety of characters, yet her efforts are spread too thin in their presentation. We’re thrown a bone or two, only to result in more famine than feast. Unable to liberate herself from her marriage, Elena finds comfort in family friend, Enrique, played by the boyishly earnest Victor Maraña. When proposing to deepen their relationship, “Will you kiss me, please?”, understudy Antonia Arcely demonstrates the perfect amount of subtlety yet devastation. Their heart fluttering affair is afforded complexity, weighing financial and personal obligations. Enrique’s depressed, nervous wife, Mari (Andrea Cañizares-Fernandez), makes an appearance, but isn’t given enough room to breathe, a passive agent in this love triangle.
Elena’s daughters are in their own crises. Ayssette Muñoz as Gina provides a captivating, heartfelt performance. Bringing a Mila Kunis energy of preppiness and pettiness that resembles Jackie from That 70s’ Show rather than Jackie O, her know it all demeanor is often cruel, but never wrong. She blossoms into a new relationship with the saccharine Rudy (Tommy Rivera-Vega), but the resolution of their story had me screaming #JusticeforGina. Janyce Caraballo’s Betty is at first sweet, then gratingly naive as she finds herself having phone calls with JFK (and later Fidel Castro) which produced a hilarious and dynamic, yet drastic, break in form. Offering some of the play’s best jokes and intriguing commentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis, this jarring shift never clarifies why she’s having these fantastical, clandestine conversations.
Musical asides are integrated into the text, yet don’t feel integral to the show. These dropped in moments of singing various sixties hits doesn’t add much substance advance the plot. Notes hang in the air like decorative and unfulfilled set dressing. Sound design by Giselle Castro assists in providing a manageable mix illuminated with cuts of archival footage of television/radio ads and news items. Joe Burke’s projections design cleverly makes up the roof of the home.
Evelina Fernández brings beautifully complicated conflict to common issues, but its potential gets lost in its sprawling structure. Some of the best dialogue is oddly given to Charlie (delivered flawlessly by the always talented Eddie Martinez), the most detestable, abusive character in the show. Brothers Johnny (Nick Mayes) and Bobby (Joaquin Rodarte) take an understandable backseat, but don’t feel fully utilized. With so many stories, the events of Hope would seem more consumable over the course of a series, whereas Fernández’s trilogy decides to focus on other characters. As a standalone play, it doesn’t get a chance to explore these characters’ relationships in their complexities and instead packs them all in tight resulting in a work that continually wanders.
‘The Brothers Size’ finds a sweet dream wrapped within a beautiful nightmare
There’s an inherent holy quality to Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size embodied in Steppenwolf Theater’s space from the play’s first opening chords. Rapt drumming, mesmerizing movement, and the grace of a talented trio immediately entice with an underlying eeriness. Without speaking any dialogue and only raising their voices through haunting melodies, this striking dynamic causes a rippling distortion. Three men start in solidarity with a bond that defies personal differences, but it’s clear they will not end this journey together.
Opening Steppenwolf’s programming for young adults, McCraney’s play is an apt choice. Drawing from Yoruba cosmology (pg. 20-21), McCraney connects cosmic elements to the grounded reality of modern, young black men. The second play in his The Brother/Sister Plays triptych, we follow the story of estranged brothers Ogun (Manny Buckley) and Oshoosi (Patrick Agada) and the tide that threatens to knock them over altogether, Elegba (Rashaad Hall), Oshoosi’s confidant. The result is a fourth wall shattering explosion of masculinity, models of care and desire, which much like that pesky streetcar, lingers on the horizon waiting to be fulfilled.
Eighty minutes don’t necessarily fly by, but allow audiences to float in troubling, at times deceiving waters with Oshoosi. Will he find a place to rest ashore with Ogun, Elegba, or a path on his own? Materialized in his home and nightmares, he can’t seem to find relief as he readjusts to life now on parole. The amount of heavy labor with little reward, constant risk for imprisonment and limited opportunities to escape poverty make the invisible chains that weigh down on black men visible and unable to ignore. A longing for freedom is emulated by captivating movement from Breon Arzell, with a foot trapped in the world and the other liberated in fantasy.
The Brothers Size is an intimate play that like any family keeps its secrets under lock and key until they cannot contain themselves any longer. It thrives from that closeness and director Monty Cole achieves a tight, precise setting from the grandiose space Steppenwolf offers. Yu Shibagaki’s scenic design scatters the ground in scraps of car tires and erects a looming mountain that’s breathtaking both up close and from a distance. Its physical stakes mirror its internal conflict with the intensity of a Greek tragedy, but with bellows of humor and an ending that’s both a win and a loss.
Using the setting to its fullest potential allows this acting trifecta to demonstrate characterization by how they take up space. Buckley carries Ogun’s power in height and vocal timber, not needing to emote much to express himself as he glides with moving brevity. Agada proves Oshoosi’s delightful charms come from his vivid storytelling capabilities, providing jokes on the fly with his long winded, yet crisp commentary. Hall as Elegba smoothly floats in and out sprinkling morsels of observation or amusement, yet greatly accelerates time and plot. His presence remains even when unseen leaving behind a complicated, ultimately devastating fortitude. Each is keen on the role they play in the others’ lives and they use that perception to fluster or surprise, at times harmless and others unforgivable.
McCraney’s work invites us to engage with these three men and their actions, but not to pass discernment. The world does plenty of that as is. Instead, there’s a great deal of empathy felt for the choices each makes to protect one another. However misguided or hazy their intentions are, it’s a strong example of how families, chosen or biological, love and survive within their complications. What pains us often sustains us.