Review: “The Rare Biosphere,” by Chris Cragin Day

About that play last night…

One of the beautiful things a play can do so well is to make a concrete reality of an abstract problem. Many legitimate, competing points of view swirl around the issue of immigration, but the mundane realities of the lives of immigrants’ and their families may swim under the radar of those who make and listen to the arguments about how to handle the problems that have resulted. By focusing on the microcosm in her work, “The Rare Biosphere,” the highly awarded playwright, Chris Cragin Day, compels the audience to think about the smallest unit in the big picture.

Directed with grace and understanding by Christopher J. Domig, the intense 95-minute drama concerns the experience of Sophie, played bilingually and with great sensitivity by Natalia Plaza, who returns home from school one day to learn that her parents have been incarcerated and are likely to be deported. We meet her as an optimistic, high-achieving, functional first-generation American girl, but her American dream suffers a rude awakening when she is compelled to put her parents’ “plan” for this horrible circumstance into action. As she turns eighteen, she is faced with a decision to forfeit her dream of becoming a microbiologist who will study the eponymous “rare biosphere.” She believes that she must do this in order to provide a life for her two younger brothers (represented by offstage voices and onstage toys and clothing). Her own thinking about how to survive clashes head-on with the ideas of a friend, Steven, who wants to be her boyfriend and help her. ZacOwens, as Steve, offers a nuanced performance that details with poignance the evolving understanding of a teenager whose comfortable American dream is disrupted by the unfairness of Sophie’s reality. Sophie and her brothers are citizens, but their freedoms are not equal to those of Steven and his family. Their youth and their family history are both points of pride and obstacles to be overcome.

When I read this play, I decided I would be especially interested to see how the Director, Christopher Domig, also the Artistic Director of the production company, Sea Dog Theater, would direct it to incorporate the idea of the rare biosphere that Sophie wants to research in college — a realm of bacterial microorganisms which seemed, to me, far away from the daily reality of Raleigh, North Carolina. This is a well-integrated production that takes great advantage of the theater space — a three-quarter round auditorium in Calvary St. George’s Church in New York City by integrating special effects lighting and scenic and sound design (Guy de Lancey and Tye Hunt Fitzgerald, respectively) and imaginative movement sequences (Lea Fulton) to gradually let us into the petri dish experiment that is Sophie’s brave new world in the family apartment.

Sea Dog Theater describes its mission as telling “stories of alienation and reconciliation.” I will not spoil the ending here, but I will agree with the producers that “while we debate policy and legislation on a national level, we too often forget the actual people affected at the heart of it.” Watching this play is a great reminder about the human struggle of people to exist in and manage their environments. We don’t need to know much about the “rare biosphere” to appreciate the experience. The production engages all five senses to deliver the message about the biosphere and the family unit. The textbook is a grace note. This play teaches us how to appreciate Sophie’s humble struggle to live the dream.

You should go see this play before it concludes its run on May 19. Ticketing and details are available at Sea Dog Theater’s website: https://www.seadogtheater.org/therarebiosphere

 

 

Natalia Plaza and Zac Owens in “The Rare Biosphere”; Photo by Jeremy Varner

Intrepid Performance: Heather Massie’s “Hedy! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr”

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Here’s a novel way to spend an evening: On an aircraft carrier, the Intrepid, now docked in New York City as part of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, watching an engaging actor, Heather Massie, reveal the complex history of an inventor: Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler Mandl Markey Loder Stauffer Lee Boies. Wait. Stay with me! It’s a fascinating one-woman show, including World War II arms dealers, Bette Davis, and Howard Hughes, among other notables.

If you aren’t recognizing the inventor’s name, you might know her better as Hedy Lamarr, the beautiful star of stage and screen known for romantic and professional pairings on- and off-screen with the likes of musician George Antheil and billionaire eccentric Howard Hughes, the first nude scene in a film (Ecstasy 1933), or perhaps Ann Hathaway’s inspiration for Cat Woman.

As an inventor, Lamarr was actually the mother of key inventions that make our cell phones and numerous other devices possible—frequency hopping and spread spectrum technology. A patriotic immigrant, Lamarr and Antheil gave their invention of radio guidance system for torpedoes to the U.S. Navy during World War II. They didn’t use it then, but we sure do depend on it now.

It was only near the end of her life that Lamarr began to receive the recognition she deserved as the Electronic Frontier Foundation reached out to invite her to receive an award. While Hedy did not receive the credit or the financial rewards her inventions deserved, this one-woman show, written and performed by Massie opens with this tribute, enabling Hedy to review the highlights of her life. It is a demanding show, with Massie playing all of the characters, making seamless transitions among many accents and personalities, with gestures as powerfully simple as raising a hat in the air or adjusting a telephone.

As a former Astrophysics major in college, Heather Massie turned to theater to explore her creative side. Through her art, she wants to encourage young women in the pursuit of science and technology and to spur creative invention. Why the Intrepid? This museum houses a special program, GOALS for Girls, to encourage girls to engage in STEAM disciplines. As I looked around at the audience during the performance, I saw rapt engagement. I was touched by the girls’ responses, and I thought: This is the way we do it—make and tell the stories that will inspire young women to create and invent.

Heather Massie’s play is doing its part, having traveled already from New York City to six other states, and Zimbabwe and Ireland. Where will you catch it next? At least 6 performances are already scheduled in different states and Ireland for 2018. Go to Heather’s website to find out more.

Note: I’ve followed “Hedy!” since its beginning as a solo show, and Heather Massie has been generous in her participation in staged readings of my work. It’s great to see an artist receive the recognition she deserves.

About My Weekend: “Arches of Hysteria”

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Louise Bourgeois at MOMA: Arch of Hysteria

This weekend was all about poetry and art in New York City, so it brought up a number of reflections, particularly in the context of some woke thinking by others about sexual harassment throughout the week.
On Saturday, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to enjoy exhibits on Max Ernst and Louise Bourgeois. The Museum was mobbed, but I was able to enjoy some quiet time with a few pieces. Taking the photo above, of Bourgeois’ “Arch of Hysteria,” epitomized the day for me. “Hysteria” has been an unfortunate label pinned on many women—particularly creative artists–in the absence of knowledge about their biology and in ignorance of social limitations. Here is Bourgeois both fighting back against the limitation of the label while illustrating its naked truth. Me, too, as I’ve been saying all week.
In the evening, I had the honor of attending a retrospective of Poetic People Power, a project founded by Tara Bracco. Starting 15 years ago, the group, now comprising 35 diverse poets, takes a social or political issue and creates performance poems around the subject. Bracco had chosen a representative work from each year, and the poets returned to perform, sometimes with a video assist. The evening was agitating, as promised, and while reanimating concerns about big issues—such as, water, democracy, consumerism, inequality, violence, and social media, the ending was anything but  depressing. What makes this group so powerful is that this group puts its action where its words are, founding arts collectives and therapeutic workshops, nonprofit solutions for climate and water issues, some eschewing careers in corporations to educate children, others helping to found multicultural organizations such as Pilipino American Unity for Progress. Their optimism that action can bring about change ultimately creates an uplifting, often transcendent evening. You leave the event wanting to do something! P3, as it is known to fans, will be focusing on bringing its shows to schools and other groups who want to augment their educational efforts on social issues. Thanks to my friend, the artist Shetal Shah, (cite IMDB) for keeping me in the loop about this project all of these years. Kudos to Tara Bracco for doing the hard work of keeping this movement going.
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Program from P3 at 15–Poetic People Power/Agitate

We have so much work to do. Sigh. In a week of so many sad revelations, how refreshing to hear Bill Murray, Jan Vogler, and friends perform highlights of West Side Story on The Late Show, ending with the emphatic reminder, “Puerto Rico’s in America!”

Thrills, Chills, and Palpitations: Cirque Italia in New Jersey!

 

Cirque Italia tent (1 of 1)

Well, the state parks of New Jersey, along with many other services, are mostly shut down due to a budget dispute, so on Sunday, I was looking for some holiday weekend  fun. Last week when I was driving out of Woodbridge Center, I noticed circus tents in the parking lot proclaiming—”Cirque Italia.” A traveling circus with a European flair. I had to find out what that was about, so I bought a ticket.

In a state that doesn’t shock easily, it would be a good thing to get a dose of humorous awe, and Cirque Italia does not disappoint. It delights. From the first release of low fog clouds to the last contortions of a Cuban contortionist, the Gold Unit international players of “America’s First Water Circus” do a tremendous job of reminding us of what it’s like to play and be amazed. There’s something for everyone in this one-ring extravaganza with high production values, and, yes, a lot of water. 35,000 gallons in magically appearing fountains and pools. Did somebody say “send in the clowns”? They’re there, and they’re funny–and they can dance! All the good things you remember about high wire, juggling, and acrobatics persist, and the focus is on action. There’s only one non-human animal—a large and photogenic green dinosaur, who affably poses with families through the entire intermission.

I was sad about the end of Ringling Brothers, so I’m especially glad I found this show, created by Italian entrepreneur, Manuel Rebecchi beginning in 2012. Tickets range $45-$50 for these talented players hailing from, among other places, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, the U.S., Argentina, and Cuba. The troupe I saw (Gold Unit) is headed down the shore later this week, so you can still catch them in Mays Landing, July 6-9, and after that in other mid-Atlantic States. The Silver Unit is appearing in the mid-West, July 6-16. The website’s videos for the gold and silver highlight similar shows. Seats were full in Woodbridge, so get a ticket before you go if location is important. Bring plenty of cash for cotton candy, face-painting, popcorn, fluorescent drinks, led toys! Plus, it’s a day away from our media circus in the intimacy of the Big Top—priceless!