Photo by Ed Krieger
Playwright Robert Harders calls his 10th-century Arabian fantasy (premiering at the McCadden Place Theater) The Demented Slave of Love. Meanwhile, over at the Celebration Theater you’ll find the West Coast premiere of Puerto Rican Edwin Sanchez’s contemporary family drama, Clean — a play that could also be named The Demented Slave of Love. Both works, after all, place unrequited love in the hearts of their protagonists.
Furthermore, both productions reveal with unusual clarity how a script is a kind of sitting duck, subject to the whims of the director and ensemble assigned to give it life. Now, some ducks never do more than float and waddle. Others wind up naked, hanging upside down on a hook. And some actually fly — the miracle of which becomes evident once you’ve had a really close look at a duck.
The theater is a marsh where such miracles become possible.
Among plays that seem destined for the skies — to do gleeful midair somersaults for the sheer jubilation of it — The Demented Slave of Love has to be near the front of the formation. Playwright Harders insists that his deconstruction of The Arabian Nights Entertainments (from the 19th-century translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton) is an original work rather than an adaptation, and there’s no reason to argue with him. His play is certainly linguistically eccentric, with some scenes written in a kind of vaudeville lingo and other sections in iambic pentameter. Harders also borrows conspicuously from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest and Calderón’s Life Is a Dream, all plays that feature dual realities, vengeful masters, forlorn protagonists and spirit guides.
But while there’s deconstruction aplenty, there’s little actual reinterpretation of the literature Harders has thrown into his stew. (How can there be, when the meaning of such whimsical works is so open to begin with?) Rather, Harders slices, dices and tosses the classics into the air. And when they land, completely re-configured, they have much the same resonance as before. This insight alone is reward enough for having undertaken the experiment.
Throughout Harders’ almost belligerently elliptical assemblage, Dahnash (Robert A. Prior), a black-garbed, tortured spirit with goatee and shaved head — imagine Caliban’s dad — is smitten with his grungy female equivalent, Maymunah (Diane Robinson), who only has eyes for a mortal: Prince Kamar (Gabriel Romero). Meanwhile, the pretty prince aches for pretty Princess Emina (Candace Reid). Et cetera. Literally conducting the cruel affairs from on high is bitchy queen Ralph the Almighty (Tim Bennett), in fez and bow tie.
Dahnash’s heart aches as he defies all evidence to believe that his love for Maymunah is requited. This is also the ache in the heart of the play, masked here by the production’s overeagerness to amuse and by its often dazzling theatrics, which finally strain the saga’s muscle. Besides playing Dahnash with an impressive but ultimately monochromatic intensity, Prior also directs the entire production — too many tasks, even for a talent as prodigious as his.
John Lacques’ live percussion accompaniment is obvious and relentless. As Dahnash’s heart is breaking, Ralph keeps wisecracking from his platform, which feels glib rather than contrapuntal. Indeed, there’s nobody at the helm to orchestrate the subtleties of the play’s tonal shifts from whimsical to plaintive and back again. Prior’s own fantastical makeup, costumes and fairy dust can only go so far.
There are any number of hearts break ing in Clean, in a story that emerges through a series of truncated scenes played on Seanne Farmer’s set, mostly bare save for a crucifix backdrop and the efficient, multipurpose use of a rolling platform. Gustavito (Marcos Padilla), a boy living in New York, falls in love with the local priest (Ken Roht). His older half brother (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) threatens to pummel the clergyman. Before hauling his clan back to Puerto Rico, their fire-breathing father, Kiko (Ernesto Miyares), stands prepared to thrash everybody in order to protect them from the world’s corruptions, while his miserable and estranged wife, Mercy (Michelle Bonilla), finds love and redemption with a cross-dresser, Norry (Joshua Wolf Coleman).
While Sanchez’s play may be a compendium of stereotypes, and while its ending tries in vain to box up an array of human contradictions and complexities with a gay-pride ribbon, the casting in Jon Lawrence Rivera’s production cuts so against the play’s evident grain, the insights that emerge are a wonder. These lie not in the lines, but between them — in the understated wince of Roht’s willowy priest when the boy visits yet again, or in the way Coleman underplays Norry’s inherent swishiness, resulting in a dignity that cuts so much deeper than exploiting the role’s obvious drag-comedy potential. In Coleman’s muted interpretation, Mercy’s attraction to Norry comes off as a credit to Mercy’s intelligence. Meanwhile, Miyares’ patriarch, Kiko — who slams his son’s head into a post for discipline — is a plain, diminutive fellow rather than a generic brute, so that his futile quest for his family’s respect and love seems as pathetic as it is familiar.
In fact, the sum of the casting is texture — an exotic specificity that has the clichés ringing more true than tired. Sometimes a duck can fly.