Hometown: Wilmette, Illinois
What lenses or identities make your perspective as a writer unique?: I’m a virgo, a queer woman, a jew, an artist, and a young person.
What was your favorite live performance this year and why?: I had the absolute joy of seeing The Fly Honey Show for the first time this year. The Fly Honey Show is an inclusive, queer, body-positive burlesque show that has performed annually in Chicago for the past ten years. Through an atmosphere of support and love that is absolutely palpable, the amazing performers that make up The Fly Honeys make you feel like a part of a special club, where the only pre-requisite is being yourself.
What, is the purpose of arts criticism?: I believe that arts criticism should be about engaging with the work, as a means of collective examination. Art (and especially theatre, in its immediacy and impermanence,) demands a dialogue between the creators and the consumers. A critic has the power to spark that conversation. At its best, arts criticism is a powerful tool for inspiration: inspiring others to engage with art and start their own conversations. And on a larger scale, it can bring together the larger artistic community and help to ask the big questions of the moment — what do we all have in common? What makes us different? What are we moving from? What are we working towards? Criticism, like the art it responds to, is critical not only of the art itself but of the society in which the art exists. As such, criticism has the ability to shape and confront society in ways as profoundly impactful as art itself.
Reviews (Most Recent First)
Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy
In musical theatre, a common saying is “we sing because we can no longer speak” – where the somewhat improbable act of characters bursting into song is made necessary by the stakes of the moment, and where emotions are so high that the character’s words transcend speaking, and become musical. Teatro Vista’s latest production, Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy by Evelina Fernández, is certainly part musical, borrowing classic 60’s tunes to help narrate the trials of the Mexican-American Morales family as they make their way through a turbulent 1961in Phoenix, Arizona. Like a musical, Hope (co-directed by Ricardo Gutierrez and Cheryl Lynn Bruce,) uses many different theatrical devices in its storytelling: projections (creatively executed by Joe Burke,) sitcom-style humor, and some very presidential fantasy sequences. Yet the story, overwhelmed by different styles and narrative elements, often clunks instead of sings.
In its opening scenes, Hope is unique and joyful as a 60s-style musical sitcom, reminiscent of Bye Bye Birdie. In a long sequence of exposition, you meet all the characters that make up the Morales family: wholesome, JFK-obsessed Betty (Janyce Caraballo), and the outspoken and adventurous Gina (Ayssette Muñoz), their two trouble-maker brothers (Nick Mayes and Joaquin Rodarte,) dedicated mother Elena (played at my performance by Antonia Arcely,) and her husband Charlie (Eddie Martinez,) who we quickly learn is absent and unfaithful.
But the sitcom-like dynamic that is set up, complete with short punchlines and presentational blocking, becomes less sustainable as the play progresses and the family’s situations become more complex. As the show delved into some very serious and worthy topics, including domestic abuse, misogyny, and the struggles of Mexican-American assimilation, I sensed the performers felt stuck between playing the low stakes of the form and expressing the high-stakes emotions of the content.
In one scene, Charlie grabs younger brother Bobby out of the room, ostensibly to beat him. The family remaining on stage bursts into song, singing Shout by the Isley Brothers as they cover their ears and literally ‘twist and shout’ away from the offstage drama. While intertwining the story with music of the time is a clever idea that helped to evoke a very decade-appropriate atmosphere, I found that the song choices never quite matched up to the narrative moment, therefore detracting from its emotional weight.
Directors Bruce and Gutierrez still landed some evocative and heartfelt moments. Hope is a true period piece, in the sense that it showcases the past in order to illuminate something about our world today. I found Betty’s deep fear of the atomic bomb to be especially prescient, reflecting many young people’s current fears about climate change – in 1961 or 2019, being a teenager comes with the threat of the world ending. As an extension of that fear, Betty (excellently portrayed by Carabello), has a series of imagined phone calls between herself and JFK (and later, Fidel Castro). I found these fantasy phone calls to be particularly compelling, and I wish the rest of the play delved as deep in its theatrical risk-taking.
Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy is presented as a part of Destinos, Chicago’s International Latino Theater Festival. And the story of Hope is an incredibly important addition to this roster, depicting vibrant and complex Latinx characters at a time in history when the Mexican-American experience was hugely under-represented. The Morales’ story would be honored by a narrower focus and more specificity in style. Removing the music from this production would clear away the noise, allowing us the space to truly hear.
The Brothers Size
Steppenwolf for Young Adults, the company’s teen programming, consistently creates accessible opportunities for high-schoolers around the city to experience world-class professional theatre that is relatable, inspiring, and relevant. SYA’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size, directed by Monty Cole, is no exception: it is a deeply felt, intense and dynamic production that explores the tension between personal identity and familial responsibility.
The Brothers Size first premiered as a part of Steppenwolf’s main stage season in 2010, as the middle triptych in McCraney’s three-play cycle, The Brother/Sister Plays. Since then, McCraney has exploded as an artistic force: as a Steppenwolf ensemble member (where he co-wrote and starred in a raucous and queer Ms. Blakk for President just this summer,) and as an acclaimed screenwriter. He is most widely known for his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which he co-adapted with Barry Jenkins into the Oscar-winning triumph, Moonlight.
Due to his prolific and fast-moving career, many will be surprised to learn that McCraney was just nineteen years old when he wrote The Brothers Size. The play accordingly honors and grapples with the very real and pressing issues that young people, particularly young men of color, face.
As the grounded and responsible Ogun (Manny Buckley) attempts to rehabilitate his relationship with younger brother Oshoosi after a few years in prison, Oshoosi finds himself torn between his brother and Elegba (Rashaad Hall), a new friend from prison who promises freedom, shared understanding, and a new car. The three men grapple to recognize and support each other beneath the looming, racist justice system that threatens to tear them apart once again.
Young people will deeply resonate with Oshoosi, a young person who, after having his freedom stripped away, seeks to re-discover himself on his own terms. In a particularly moving scene, Oshoosi describes looking at books of other countries and being amazed and overwhelmed by the enormity of the world — as he puts it, “there are more ‘me’s to meet” out there. Any high school student staring down the barrel of their future can relate to that hunger of possibility. The role is played with immense facility by Patrick Agada, who nimbly oscillates between vulnerability and boisterousness, as many teenagers do when trying to charm their way through a tough time.
Using Yoruba cosmology, poetry, and movement, this three-character triangle of joy and sorrow is expressively illuminated. In several of his plays, McCraney utilizes a device known as the “distant present”, in which characters speak their own stage directions of the action they are performing. This creates an urgent, visceral theatricality that heightens the story to mythic, archetypal proportions. As such, each character is named after a Yoruban Orisha — Oshoosi is the deity of survival, Ogun is the deity of ironworking, and Elegba is a messenger and trickster.
This theatricality is further illuminated by Yu Shibagaki’s gorgeous and stark scenic design, which leaves the original back wall of the theatre exposed amidst a mountain of rubber tar. And director Monty Cole allows intimacy and humor to shine through every crack of these characters, with fast-paced dialogue giving way to impressionistic dream sequences.
This sense of a distant present is never more, well, present, than towards the emotional climax of the play. Ogun and Oshoosi’s ultimate attempt at reconciliation comes through song, in a rendition of Try A Little Tenderness that bests Pretty in Pink. As the brothers joyfully dance and sing, they continue to act out their stage directions: they are literally trying a little tenderness, and finding their way back to the irreplaceable bond of brotherhood that prison has taken from them.