Out of the slums and into the fire
- Photo by Devlin Shand
Lake Michigan’s northern shore isn’t the paradise Tiago (center) thought it would be.
Complicated characters & surprising developments anchor ‘Peninsula’
BY LILLIAN MEREDITH | In the dubious first moments of the otherwise terrific “Peninsula,” the audience is introduced to Tiago, a beautiful Brazilian man, suspended under water. We know he’s under water because he tells us so, in a first person poetic monologue. “I am under the water,” he says. “I think I am. I must be. Under. The. Water. Looking up. Up. Up.” For a good minute or so, we watch as he punctuates this rather stilted description with darted abstract movement and tiptoed suspension. This is, unfortunately, a motif we will return to repeatedly over the next hour and a half.
It is unfortunate, mostly because Tiago’s underwater reveries are significantly less interesting than the actual events of the play — which has a wonderful momentum, propelled by an unceasingly taut narrative of overlapping scenes filled with complicated characters and surprising developments.
The great feat of “Peninsula” is the way it weaves three narratives into a single, seamless story. The primary plotline follows Tiago, a migrant laborer picking cherries in an orchard on Lake Michigan’s northern shore. One night, Tiago meets Tommy, a rich white kid from Chicago who summers on the peninsula, and they begin a kind of tentative flirtatious teenage relationship. Tommy, meanwhile, is having problems at home. His absent philandering father is apparently so unhappy with Tommy’s sexuality that he has stopped coming up on weekends, while his WASP-y alcoholic mother is desperately trying to keep everything, including her incredible sadness, under control. As Tommy and Tiago’s stories intertwine their way through the summer, Tiago also recalls his recent past. In flashes, we see Rio de Janeiro, where Tiago spends his days with his girlfriend Lily and his nights in a seedy sexual liaison with Nelson, a man with a dangerous plan to get out of Brazil.
This fast-paced, ill-fated tale of desire benefits from Nadia Foskolou’s innovative, precise direction. Wisely, she has opted for minimalism — there is no set, no props and no costume changes. Every shift in place and time is dependent on the staging, and Foskolou manages to make each scene distinct, to the point where it feels a little like being on a roller coaster (in the best way). Occasionally, the heightened staging is silly, excessive and unnecessary, but usually it augments the narrative extremely well. Moreover, under her sure hand, the play is actually very funny, making its disturbing trajectory all the more distressing.
Foskolou has also drawn some outstanding performances from her actors. Angela Atwood stands out in particular for her complete and subtle portrayal of Tommy’s overbearing mother, creating a character of depth and complexity in an easily caricatured role. She has one of the more heartbreaking moments of the piece, when she tries to be, in her words, a “good mother” to the obstinate Tommy, and becomes rather despicable instead. Vanessa Bartlett brings a touching vulnerability to the strong, independent Lily — and John Zdrojeski is captivating as Bennett, the well-intentioned orchard supervisor, despite his rather strange decision to contort his face into what I assume must be his rural working-class everyman mask. The gay male characters are, unfortunately, less well-developed, including Josué Gutiérrez Guerra as Tiago, who seems to have a permanent half-smile on his face regardless of his circumstances. But on the whole, the actors interact with ease and charisma, and as a group they build tension together beautifully.
It is a pity, therefore, that in the midst of this captivating play, there appear cryptic and completely superfluous submerged monologues from Tiago.
These monologues are not only tedious and unnecessary, they actually completely detract from the momentum, eliminating any surprise the coming events may hold. Perhaps Wright assumes that his play is not clear or suspenseful enough on its own. He’d be wrong. “Peninsula” is great — but it would be even better if Wright allowed the story to tell itself.
This review originally appeared on the site of our content partner, nytheatre.com.
A FringeNYC Encore Series presentation
Written by Nathan Wright
Directed by Nadia Foskolou
Tues., Sept. 24, 8pm
Sat., Oct. 5, 9pm
Sun., Oct. 13, 7pm
At The Players Theater
115 MacDougal St. (btw. Bleecker & Houston Sts.)
Tickets: $18, available at 212-352-3101 or at ovationtix.com