Two new plays ask, and sometimes answer, difficult questions
“Acts of Faith” at the Aurora Fox
If acting is reacting, then it might seem that a solo performer is robbed of something, someone concrete to respond to. And yet when a solo piece works well, it is a marvel.
The Aurora Fox production of playwright David Yee’s “Acts of Faith” – receiving its U.S. premiere – is that kind of feat.
Betty Hart plays Faith, a Zambian 13-year-old mistaken for a prophet for reasons that are too good to spoil here. Still, you should know this about the teenager: She likes to tell jokes with seemingly religious set-ups and clever punchlines. She learned that from her mother, whom she quotes. “Faith, the best way to get people to listen is to bless them with laughter.” And the beats and shifts of this one act are often signaled by a fresh joke.
Hart captures Faith’s youthful hamminess. The kid likes an audience and relates her tales with well-timed asides and wisecracks. But when things turn hard – and they do – Faith doesn’t become an unreliable narrator so much as a teenager who is telling and wrestling with the meaning of her story simultaneously.
When Faith’s devout Christian mother learns her daughter tricked people into believing she had performed a miracle, she can’t suppress her disappointment. Priests had told her mother she’d never get pregnant after two miscarriages, and Faith was her “miracle child.” Now, her mother’s friends and fellow parishioners in Kitwe agree that Faith is a miracle child because she’d performed one. Only she hadn’t.
Confession proves a central and rich conceit in “Acts of Faith.” The structure of solo performances dovetails nicely with the sense that the audience is being confided in.
The weight of her mother’s disappointment leads Faith to travel to a nearby city where she plans to confess her transgression. While visiting family, she attends a church where she’s struck by a vision: “Blond hair, short and kind of messy. Tan skin. But not farmer tan, like Hollywood tan. Piercing blue eyes. Nice toned arms. Big, powerful hands. A tattoo.” Surely, God means for Faith to confess her hoax to this visiting priest.
It is during confession to “Father Hot Stuff” that Faith’s sense of security and budding autonomy are betrayed. Yee handles what takes place between the priest and Faith with deft allusion – and turpentine. The smell of turpentine oil becomes a sickening sense memory.
What follows Faith’s assault is intricately plotted. Faith — the stuff of things not seen but also the stuff of familial bonds — becomes a pronounced theme. In the play’s final scenes, which find Faith living in Toronto, Yee boldly teases the meetings of fact and mystery, fate and agency.
The playwright wrote this one-act for Toronto’s Factory Theatre so it could be filmed during the pandemic. Brandon Case’s set for the Aurora Fox’s smaller Studio Theatre hews to that simplicity. Arched, stained-glass windows suggest grace and place. A long bench adjacent to the walls resembles a pew. Nothing on stage detracts from Hart’s performance, from Faith’s smart-alecky or disquieting revelations. Director Pesha Rudnick and Hart forge an unwavering intimacy between Faith and her listeners. Her journey is a thing to behold.
This is the final weekend of “Acts of Faith,” and you might consider rearranging your plans to catch it before Faith and her vital lessons vanish.
“Alma” at the Curious Theatre Company
Although the title of Benjamin Benne’s play might suggest that it, too, is a one-person show, “Alma” is very much a two-hander about what belonging means to an undocumented, single mother and her U.S. citizen teenager. As Alma and Angel, Laura Chavez and Iliana Lucero Barron bring a sweet and tart tension to the Curious Theatre Company production, directed by visiting artist Denise Evette Serna. It runs through Feb. 19.
The play takes place in the one-bedroom apartment that the two share in La Puende, Calif., east of Los Angeles. “Puende,” Alma reminds her daughter, means bridge. The name was one of the reasons she was attracted to and hopeful about the town.
For its 25th season, Curious has programmed plays that have asked – and offered different replies to – the question “What does it mean to be an American?” In a California apartment complex, the two women grapple with their own answers to that question.
It’s the night before Angel is supposed to take the SATs. Years earlier, Angel and Alma made a shared list of dreams and goals – 16 of them to be exact, plus a few later added amendments. One of the items on the list was Angel scoring 2400 on the college entrance exam. That the combined score of the test has since changed is something Angel points out a few times.
Another item on the list was that Angel would go to UC-Davis to study veterinary medicine. Angel is rethinking that, too. Yes, dreams change, shared goals diverge, especially those freighted ones parents harbor for their children.
When Alma arrives home eager to help her daughter with a flash-card deck, the teenager isn’t there. She should be studying. When Angel sneaks in, drunkenly, Alma has a gotcha moment. The director skillfully plies the play’s many notes of parent-teen humor: the fibs, the backtalk, the gentle guilt-tripping. The jabs and jests here have an extra layer of hurt because Alma and Angel don’t have equal status in the law.
That the play is set in December 2016 adds a special tension to what transpires. Having espoused anti-Mexican rhetoric during his campaign, Donald Trump will be sworn in as president in the next few weeks, a fact that weighs on Alma enough that she has consulted a friend’s immigration lawyer. (Early on, Angel smartly points out that Barack Obama was called the “deporter-in-chief” for a reason.)
The nasal drone of the president-elect emanates from the television set. But a National Geographic show about elephants also figures in, bringing with it questions of mourning and memory. At times, the TV set seems to have a mind of its own. The sky outside the apartment window is also treated as a character rife with meaning.
With projections and sound design by El Armstrong, the play utilizes faint magical-realist gestures. The blare coming from the TV emphasizes the too-riven politics of immigration and borders; the expanse of the nighttime sky reframes questions of time and borders and being human.
But even with that sky turning from orange to starry and evoking the cosmos, “Alma” traverses the playful and the serious of two souls navigating their place and time. Over the evening, mother and daughter reformulate their relationship to each other. They share and bicker. When Alma resorts to la chancla (a flip-flop) to discipline Angel, the play flip-flops the gesture, turning it into something tender and knowingly humorous. But when each woman weeps – for overlapping reasons and at different moments – their tears remind us that so much is at stake for Alma, Angel and the country in which they live and love.
If you go
“Acts of Faith”: Written by David Yee. Directed by Pesha Rudnick. Featuring Betty Hart. Through Sunday, Feb. 5, at the Aurora Fox Arts Center’s Studio Theatre, 9900 East Colfax Ave., Aurora. Tickets and info: aurorafox.org and 303-739-1970.
“Alma”: Written by Benjamin Benne. Directed by Denise Evette Serna. Featuring Laura Chavez and Iliana Lucero Barron. Through Feb. 18 at the Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma St. Tickets and info [email protected] and 303-623-0524.
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