Saturday, October 16, 2010

Coming on like a "Hurricane"

Nilo Cruz's new play, "Hurricane," premiered at the Ringling International Art Festival. The festival commissioned the work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Michael Donald Edwards directs.

The setting: a Caribbean island in the path of a killer storm. The characters: Forrest (Paul Whitworth), an old-school Christian missionary; Ria (Kim Brockington), his island-born wife; Aparicio (Carlo Albán), their adopted son -- a gift from the sea who magically appeared one day, floating in a basket like baby Moses.

Cruz' play opens in discordant stereo. The storm's a-coming. Forrest declaims from the Bible in Shakespearean tones; Ria makes an incantation to an Afro-Caribbean sea goddess; Aparicio climbs a tree in a rite-of-passage ritual to get a zap of spiritual energy from the Hurricane. (Which seems to reflect Mom's religion more than Dad's.) Dad goes looking for Aparicio. When the storm hits, Dad gets conked on the head. And it's amnesia time for Reverend Forrest. 

Forrest comes back to consciousness but not to himself. He's lost his history, his personality and his religion. He thinks he's possessed by the spirit of a woman: Andrea. Like Goethe's Faust, two souls cohabit within his breast.

Aparicio blames himself for his father's blasted brain. Ria makes agonizing attempts to reconnect with Forrest's lost identity. At the end of it all, there's a redemption -- and happy ending -- of sorts.

Great acting on all counts. Whitworth has a powerful, Shakespearean delivery; Brockington conveys a sweet agony as Ria; Albán is touching as a teenager wrestling with guilt.

Edwards bookends the play with two striking visual images; a frozen tableaux of debris, and Aparicio swimming through the air. (No magic. Just Peter Pan-style wire works.)

Great stuff. But the stuff in-between the two images doesn't quite add up.

Cruz' play is an interesting meditation on the loss of identity -- and the foundational role memory has in creating identity. But a meditation isn't a play. Aside from a concussion and its aftermath, there's no real conflict or tension. Father, Mother and Son are all wonderful people. Dad got bonked on the head. They went through some bad times. But they're OK now.

It's not enough. I get the sense the playwright feels the same way. Cruz' play is a sketch; an hour-long slide show of high points -- which it had to be to fit the festival format. Cruz hints at the tension between Christianity and Afro-Caribbean religion but never explores it. He informs us that Forrest rescued his wife from sexual slavery -- and drops the subject. There's a big story here -- too big to shoehorn into sixty minutes.

My hunch is, Cruz will expand the play and dig into the subtext. Dad's loss of memory will have a larger resonance to -- say -- the white man's willful amnesia to his patronizing exploitation of Afro-Caribbean people. An amnesia which applies, even to "heroic" white missionaries.

That's just a guess. As it stands now, the play is a sketch.

It's fascinating now for the complete image that it promises.

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