BWW Review: Bountiful Storytelling in Surreal DUELS at 12th Avenue Arts
There are dozens of different ways to tell a story, and budding production team amador/stokes may have used all of them in their vibrant, surreal production "DUELS", currently playing at 12th Avenue Arts.
The play starts out in a bare-bones, absurdist landscape where two men, Juan and John, try to figure out who they are and what is their relationship to the woman gardening, Irene. As two men carrying guns, they come to the comically quick conclusion that whoever they are, they definitely have to shoot each other. They kill each other over and over again, only to be reborn and remember nothing. Each episode incorporates more detail than the last, creating a beautiful transition from the absurd to the objective as the real story reveals itself.
The minimalist absurdity gradually blooms into a lush, romantic drama. Director José Amador does a great job making the narrative feel organic, even when there is nothing natural about the way the characters speak to one another. John and Juan may be on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to what they represent allegorically, or what they love, or what they value, but they never feel like they are on two different planets. There is a consistency with the pacing where even when Juan and John are literally speaking different languages (and Irene herself goes through various transitions), the stylistic tone is always perfectly in sync.
Nick Stokes wrote a rich, juicy script--truly, a melting pot of genres, languages, and themes. But never once did this ripe production feel gluttonous or rushed. I was skeptical at first: Irene kicks off the show by giving an abstract play-by-play of the calf she is helping birth, peppered with macabre suggestions about butchering the calf's mother. Meanwhile, two seemingly dead men lay on the ground on either side of her, unacknowledged. But the second John and Juan sprout to life and cluelessly amble about, Irene's guidance becomes cogent and funny.
With a cast of three, those three cast members had to be good--and they were. Each and every member did a great job starting out as these very odd, off-putting characters reciting repetitive lines and bleeding vegetable juice. By the end of the performance, I was nearly moved to tears. Carter Rodriquez gives a very tender portrayal of the wholesome, passionate Juan. As his Type A counterpart John, Daniel Christensen was a high-energy manifestation of white privilege with a dash of innocence. As Irene, Marianna de Fazio gracefully transitioned from salt-of-the-earth gardener to yuppie housewife.
The set design and props were truly ingenious. The prop food especially shines in this production, so much so that it feels wrong to call the fruits and vegetables "props". All of the produce comes from writer Stokes' garden. Audience members are offered samples in the lobby. Being able to smell and taste the vegetables before the play added an extra layer of sensory connection to the plot.
Nonetheless, there where some clunky transitional moments. For example, the prop table was placed on stage. That choice works in the beginning of the performance when the storytelling is minimalist and allegorical, but when an actor steps out of a poignant moment to grab a blanket from the table, it feels incongruent with the tone.
But those moments are fleeting, and "DUELS", as a whole, presents a cornucopia of senses, languages, themes, and genres. In this surreal landscape, "DUELS" reminds us what it means to be human. Prop table qualms aside, I give amador/stokes' "DUELS" an impressed 5/5 stars. This one is not to be missed!
"DUELS" performs at 12th Avenue Arts through September 11, 2016. For tickets and information, visit them online at http://www.blackboxoperations.org/.