BWW Review: 14 at THEATRE PROMETHEUS
SMALL THEATRE COMPANY DOES AN IMPORTANT PRODUCTION OF A BIG PLAY
The energetic Theatre Prometheus has skillfully mounted a timely production of 14, a play by José Casas in the 30-seat Caos on F Street space. Inspired by the deaths of 14 Mexican migrants in the desert bordering the USA and Mexico back in May 2001, Casas' play takes an unsparing look at the situation that has, of course, become worse 18 years later. He does it not by writing the stories of those who died (though he honors them by name); rather his characters live near the border, some in Mexico, others in Arizona, Texas, and California. Their stories combine to illuminate many facets of America's current argument/conversation about who gets to come into this country. The stalwart cast of four play 16 very recognizable people, each with opinions about and connections to that border. By concentrating on ordinary lives, Casas avoids politics and spotlights human behavior. Spending time with these 16 people is more informative than a long article in The Washington Post, as entertaining as reality TV, and frequently moving.
Cristina Sanchez portrays an Arizona woman who moves to LA to start a magazine (Modern Chicana.) She's a born valley girl, chattering mindlessly as she is interviewed over the phone, grooming and preening while breathlessly self-promoting her brilliant publishing idea. While stranded at an "in" lunch place after a friend doesn't show for their meet-up, she starts a conversation with four Latinas on lunch break from their high school. This is her market! She gushes and eventually gives the teens free subscriptions to her periodical. As they separate, the girls call out a racial slur to a passing Hispanic woman of a perceived lower class who is old enough to be their abuela. The transplanted entrepreneur suddenly remembers her own roots as she feels them being attacked by her new "market," four girls on their way back to afternoon classes at a parochial school. Sanchez' attention to emotional and physical detail makes this segment the "11 o'clock spot" of Act I.
The sort of adorable irony of having four actors play so many people casts Tom Howley as both the loudest racist and the most compassionate person in 14. The booming founder of "Voices for a Free Arizona" wants to build an "effing" wall to keep migrants out of USA. Later, Howley effectively changes key as the priest who helps place water tanks in the desert for the travellers. Lalo Medina plays five different Latino men, one of them in Spanish, including a local politician who is violently against bilingual education and an actor who is tired of being type-cast as a Latino man. Meredith Garagiola's expert characterization of a small businesswoman stands out among her three roles.
Casas' play consists of 16 monologues. All the characters talk to an unseen interviewer, and it's not really a spoiler that this interviewer is the playwright himself. Plays built out of monologues such as The Laramie Project, which 14 resembles, are gold mines for actors looking for audition pieces. But Casas' awareness of the workings of human thought and motivations and his sensitivity to the architecture of complicated situations have found the drama inside every set piece, so his style choice is never a drawback. (His day job is teaching in the drama department of the University of Michigan.)
The vaguely 12' square playing area at Caos on F might cause chaos for a less savvy troupe. Director Lauren Patton just picks the piece of furniture without which each character cannot do--a desk, a cooler full of cold drinks, a chair, a counter top with with painter's supplies--and plants it, and then they use it--simple, elegant. No sign of chaos here. Where do you put the props table when the house you're in has no backstage? On the set; as the set. A peg boardy sort of wall stocked with needed baseball caps and stethoscopes and drone controls form a bit of a backdrop. Good thinking, set designers Eric McMorris and Daniel Mori. Not only were all 16 people distinctively costumed, but Costume Designer Kristina Martin knows that kindergarten teachers wear tennis shoes and bratty gift shop owners wear trendy heels that are too high to walk in. Nitsan Scharf's lettered projections identifying each character were vivid, but, alas, Caos' brick wall acted as a sponge and made mush of the other projected images.
Theatre Prometheus believes this is only the second production of 14 by José Casas; the powerful play deserves many more productions and a TV treatment. And this little company that can and does will run 14 through May 12; TheatrePrometheus.org.