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Stop Making Sense

February 13, 2008

The three women in Brainpeople may be crazy, but they’re easy to figure out.

Most people know José Rivera for his Academy Award-nominated screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries. The film derives much of its power from Rivera’s human and down-to-earth portrait of two young doctors – Ernesto Guevara (who would go on to achieve worldwide renown as the Marxist revolutionary “Che” Guevara) and his friend, Alberto Granado – as they undertake an epic motorcycle journey across South America together in 1952. Rivera’s reputation as a writer of artsy buddy movies will no doubt be sealed when his adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road appears in cinemas sometime next year. Yet for all the dramatist’s skill at bringing male characters to life on screen, the female characters that haunt his stage plays like disconsolate banshees are even more eloquent.

Over the past 20-plus years, Rivera has created wild roles for women. Spun in equal parts from pulsing flesh and fleeting dreams, Rivera’s female characters are as hard to pin down as they as they are impossible to brush aside. Take Celestina del Sol, the protagonist of his 1995 play Cloud Tectonics. Rivera’s luminous heroine literally stops clocks when she arrives in Los Angeles one night, heavily pregnant and hitchhiking in the middle of a storm. In Each Day Dies with Sleep, Rivera’s open-hearted yet ambitious protagonist, Nelly, starts out crawling on all fours, babbling unintelligibly, and spends the rest of the play fighting the impulse to regress back to her animal self in the face of an oppressive father and philandering husband. Meanwhile, a murder in a New York subway car in Marisol forces the courageous title character to come to terms with the possibility of her own death and redemption at the hands of a golf club-wielding lunatic and a ragged-winged angel.

Rivera’s dense and poetic new play, Brainpeople, features three equally vivid female characters, but even though each is mad in her own way, they’re ultimately – and disappointingly – easier to pin down than many of the women in his other works. Set in an Orwellian version of Los Angeles complete with armored cars, checkpoints, and curfews, the drama unfolds over an evening in the apartment of Mayannah, the wealthy young heiress of a Puerto Rican rum dynasty. Every year on this night, Mayannah throws a bizarre dinner party in which she pays two complete strangers tens of thousands of dollars to share a candlelit banquet of freshly-cooked tiger meat with her. Mayannah is particularly excited about this year’s guests – a fearful-cynical Armenian by the name of Ani (chosen by the hostess on account of her “lovely hands”) and Rosemary, a deeply troubled and downtrodden woman (with “lovely eyes”) who appears to be suffering from an acute case of multiple personality disorder. As the play unfolds in the faded opulent gloom of Mayannah’s dining room, we come to know each character’s inner workings, from her most ardent desires to the “Brainpeople” (the demons in her head and/or those at work in the oppressive society outside) holding her back.

The play distinguishes itself from the playwright’s previous works in several ways. For one thing, it’s the first Rivera drama with no roles for male actors. For another, it’s probably the most psychological of Rivera’s plays to date. The playwright’s other works tend to employ fantastical external metaphors like talking cats and orange trees with black fruit to convey inner states of being. But with the notable exception of their ravenous dinner-table tearing of tiger flesh between teeth, the characters in Brainpeople reveal what’s going on inside their heads more through their words than surreal symbols. For a third, the play probably contains one of the most demanding parts for any actor, male or female, I’ve witnessed on the new play scene in a long time.

The role of Rosemary, essayed in American Conservatory Theater’s world premiere production by core company member René Augesen, must be fun for an actor to sink her teeth into, but it’s a hard chew. During the course of the drama, the actor switches countless times between a multitude of very different, but equally potty personalities. Some of the more pronounced of these include a strung-out Liverpudlian rock chick, an old Irishwoman and a Midwestern gal. Sometimes the character locks into one of these “Brainpeople” for just a few seconds, while at other times, a personality will stick around for a while. Either way, it’s hard to keep up with them all. The role reminds me of the protagonist in Rebecca Gilman’s 2005 play, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, who ricochets Jekyll and Hyde-like between depressed artist and pro baseball player. Moving between two different personalities convincingly is challenging enough for an actor. Switching between 13 as Augesen does in 90 minutes requires almost supernatural skills.

Dressed in natty thrift store biker boots and jeans, her blond hair piled up on top of her head haphazardly, Augesen inhabits some of Rosemary’s personas more comfortably than others. The most successful of these is, ironically, a male character -- a slick Latino gentleman by the name of Miguel. With just the right amount of swagger, glamour and effortless sexual confidence, Augesen is more believable in this role than she is in any other during the play. This deep connection between actor and persona makes sense within the thematic framework of the drama: Miguel isn’t so much part of Rosemary as a shadowy figure from Mayannah’s past. He’s part of an elaborate fantasy sequence bordering on a drama therapy session rather than the main action itself. Augesen’s ability to wear this dream persona’s clothes so snugly underscores one of the drama’s central points: the power of make-believe and play-acting over reality as a tool for changing negative behavioral patterns and beliefs.

Augesen’s other personas are less compelling. It’s hard to tell most of them apart from one another. This becomes particularly problematic about halfway through the play when we watch Rosemary go into overdrive and break down like a defective robot. Like something out of a horror film, Rosemary becomes possessed by one persona after another, all fighting to take primary possession of her body. Augesen can’t quite keep up with the fluid, dreamlike pace of director Chay Yew’s production. The distinctions between the different personalities often aren’t strong enough to help us follow along with her. The disorientation we feel is intriguing in the sense that it reflects the discombobulation of the other two characters. But too much of it is confusing us and makes us question the quality of the acting.

Luckily, Sona Tatoyan’s defensively deranged Ani and Lucia Brawley’s elegantly mad Mayannah and serve as compelling buffers for the more baffling parts of Augesen’s performance. The discomfiture of Tatoyan’s primly-dressed, bespectacled character – in particular, her unwillingness to buy Rosemary and Mayannah’s stories – provides an oft-needed reality check on the proceedings. Meanwhile, cool and sophisticated in a black cocktail dress and heels, Brawley’s character stirs up intrigue. The stories she spins are compelling because she believes them so entirely. Suddenly, the business of sending members of her staff to India to hunt down a specific female tiger and bribing customs officials in order to serve the meat at a special dinner party for people she hardly knows makes perfect sense.

Ultimately, though, it makes too much sense. Instead of allowing his characters’ realities to remain enticingly hidden from us like the gothic shadows and darkly glimmering crucifixes in scenic designer Daniel Ostling’s set, Rivera decides to explain his characters away. This time, Rivera’s profound understanding of the female psyche may have gone too far. Brainpeople’s banshees are indeed a disconsolate bunch, but their eloquence gets in the way.



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