The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: NYTW’s american (tele)visions
“Now I get to remember,” spoken as the visuals turn on with a vengeance, and the American dream (or nightmare) known as Wal-Mart, begins to refract the gods of consumption out to us to make its point. The images flicker on and around this family of illegal immigrants that stands not-so-united at the core of this new play. It’s a strongly formulated beginning, stating quite equivocally that “if they don’t like it, they can change the channel.”
american (tele)visions, written with undeniable wit and poignancy by Victor I. Cazares (We Were Eight Years in Powder), is an overwhelmingly captivating presentation, projecting contextual ideals and metaphoric themes with a wild abandonment that feels both staggering and compelling. Cazares, the non-binary Poz Queer Indigenous Mexican artist and Tow Playwright-in-Residence at New York Theatre Workshop where this play is getting its world premiere, gathers this topical family around the quintessential shopping cart as if it is the beating heart of this union. That portrait holds the keys to the control room after a summer storm pulls it and them all apart, leaving a fracture and split that feels unhealable. They, Cazares, unleash an epic multi-media wasteland using live performances, live camera feeds, and pre-recorded video where channels are changed hypnotically and sometimes without reason. Time flies forward and back, like being lost and disoriented in one of those huge superstores, standing fractured but holding tight to their shopping cart, the “most sacred ancient vessel of capitalism.” This chaotic visual is paralleled within this themed memory play that shuffles these characters’ lives down endless Wal-Mart aisles, only to throw them outside, and inside a double-wide torn apart by grief, loss, and heartbreak. They keep “making fences,…to keep us out…to keep us in.“
Reflected and refracted through the lens of television cameras and imagined video games, american (tele)vision, as directed with a force worthy of a summer storm by Rubén Polendo (NYTW’s </remnant/>), beams the calibrations of the television signal directly on all the surfaces present. The walls become static-laden windows and screens, unpacking and displaying the undocumented existence of this troubled family of immigrants from Mexico, circa 1990 from the wide-eyed and innocent perspective of the youngest child, a sweet-faced tomboy named Erica, portrayed openly by Bianca “b” Norwood (“WeCrashed“). The lists and prices fly forward, pushing our adrenalin to the extremes as we watch a family unravel, regardless of how many needs are being met inside that shopping cart.
The cures are another story in this fascinating sensory overload production of a play that tries to unpack all the hidden items at the bottom of the shopping cart. With chopped-up metal containers as the backdrop to their lives, courtesy of scenic and costume designer Bretta Gerecke (Stratford’s Alice Through the Looking Glass), with specialty costumes energetically designed by Mondo Guerra (“Project Runway”) and a strong lighting design by Jeanette Yew (Public’s cullud wattah), Erica’s parents are unpacked and displayed with a tense “we used to shop together” bitterness and love/hate. Her father, the factory-working Octavio, strongly played by Raúl Castillo (Public’s School of the Americans), stands tall but feels as empty and used up as a shopping card left in a parking lot after its contents have been driven off; battered and rejected. Her mother, the sharply focused Maria, played tightly by Elia Monte-Brown (The Guthrie’s Blithe Spirit), is a frosted cake that won’t taste as good as it looks; separated and lost somewhere between the American Dream and the American Nightmare. She’s left but is still there, buying and engaging, while being unduly departed. But the emotional squeaky wheel of this theatrical cart lives inside the formulation that is Erica’s older brother, Alejandro, who is dead, but brought forth in the recruited physicality of his greatly-loved friend Jesse, dutifully and doubly portrayed beautifully by the fantastic Clew (Hanover Theatre’s Julius Caesar). He stands somewhat uncomfortably in for him, in the same way, that Jesse was brought into the family by Alejandro, and we can’t help but be pulled into his sadness, discomfort, and longing for someone to love him and be in love with.
Queerness and living outside the norm fight for air inside the claustrophobic sterility of the store, living and breathing throughout this sometimes humorous, emotionally complicated play, even as Alejandro’s death gets unpacked and understood through the selfish use of Jesse. Erica’s fantastically constructed and engaging gay friend and neighbor Jeremy, played with a wonderful abandonment by Ryan J. Haddad (Woolly Mammoth’s Hi, Are You Single?) unveils some of the show’s funniest and wackiest moments, that also unpack layers of fascinating and provocative protective plastic ideology about gender and sexuality from inside the Barbie Doll lair in Layawayland. But it is inside Clew’s understated and emotionally connecting performance as both Jesse and Alejandro that we find the wheels that push this play from the store aisles into the heart of the matter.
Utilizing all of the quick change technology designed by Justin Nestor, Alex Hawthorn, and Kelly Colburn (</remnant>), the jolting and unveiling of this tense story finds its way. The staging and the unpacking mash themselves up haphazardly against these four large metal boxes that feel like cages. The imagery sometimes overwhelms the emotional core of american (tele)vision with all of its sophisticated projections and themes. The boxes serve as screens for the mish-mash of images that are meant to enliven the unpacking. “You are the things you hide,” we are told, and inside the imagery is a confusing formula that clicks on the remote with abandonment, changing channels too quickly, like a distracted, late-night watcher of television exhausted but too preoccupied to sleep. Reality gets morphed and shuffled around in this one hour and forty-minute one-act play, revealing painful secrets and interactions that fracture and split that double-wide that might have, at one time, felt like home. It’s chaotic and confounding, but the heart of the familial schism does engage far more than any Mexican telenovela. That’s the experience within this stacked play that resonates, but unfortunately, the heart gets lost in the static and the interference.