“American (Television) Performances,” which opened Thursday at the New York Theater Workshop, is a bibliography of the nearly 50 books, films, and works of art and music that inspired Victor’s playwriting. I. Casares. The broad list of titles includes Luis Buñuel, Haruki Murakami and Magnetic Fields, and Stephen Mitchell’s 2000 translation of the Bhagavad Gita.
Set on the reflective screens of a Walmart TV department, this memory play is an apt way to illustrate the sometimes awkward yet treasure trove of tropes, metaphors, and ’90s American cultural touches.
For young Erica and her family, undocumented Mexican immigrants living in a “poor but ethnically diverse” trailer park, Walmart is a linoleum-floored, dream-animated discount paradise. Erica (Bianca “B” Norwood), who likes boys’ clothes and toys, watches race cars, while her best friend, Jeremy (Ryan J. Haddad), zeroes in on pink boxes of Barbies. Erica’s father, Octavio (Raúl Castillo), is mesmerized watching TVs — as if he’s been sitting at home for hours, almost catatonic in despair. Her mother, Maria Simina (Elijah Monte-Brown), disappears into some unknown part of the store because Erica knows she has something to do with Maria later abandoning her family for a truck driver. And his brother Alejandro secretly buys KY jelly and condoms.
But Alejandro can’t play himself into this scrambled account of family because he’s already dead, Erica tells us. So Maria Jimena assigns the role to Jessie (Clue), Alejandro’s best friend, who comes home one night to stay with Alejandro.
While the story already contains the hair-raising twists, secret affairs, betrayals, family feuds, deaths and gasp-worthy slapstick of a telenovela, the characters – especially Erika – are empowered to change the timeline of events and steer the story. Reframing and recategorizing challenging memories. It turns “American (television) scenes” into an acrobatic work of storytelling. It shifts modes and tones so rapidly — from the living room couch to Erica and Jeremy’s fictional detective series to Walmart’s layaway department — that the product evokes a channel-browsing feel.
Ruben Polento’s direction is lively and clear, but overpowers the script’s vulnerabilities: heightened language, some repeated metaphors (Octavio is a television, Alejandro a chain-link fence) and length. Running just 100 minutes without intermission, the show stretches like a channel guide for a premium cable TV package.
Although Norwood, who uses the pronouns they/them, spends most of the play as Erica’s bright, imaginative childhood self, their performance contains traces of the adult Erica: a certain turmoil and hope, a kind of grown-up wisdom of someone who understands her trauma. As Erika’s parents, Monte-Brown is at her best when she unleashes a mother’s roar of grief, and Castillo imbues her performance with crushing, pervasive depression.
While playing a supporting role in Erica’s life and fantasy, Haddad’s Jeremy provides some of the play’s best jokes, such as calling a capitalist video-game-style villain “Ayn Rand.” Sensual fantasy.” A brilliant juxtaposition of Alejandro and Jessie, Clue, who uses the pronouns they/they, is strangely present and absent: two characters, one living and one dead, giving performances that feel fittingly temporary. They flit in and out of scenes, changing characters from line to line; they A part is ghostly.
Co-produced by Theater Midu, known for its experimental mixed media theatre, the show features high-definition color and depth. Bretta Gerecke’s set design conveys the feeling of living in the world of screens: the stage is a gigantic box, inside which are four tall cubes, two stacked on each side, which open to reveal micro-settings (a forest. A meteor, a living room, the front exterior of a truck. and hit by a Walmart toy aisle). Animations, recorded videos, and live camera footage are projected onto the surfaces of the cubes and the back and side walls of the set, helping to illustrate the suffocating narrative that begins with the brutality of American capitalism (“I don’t want to,” Erica declares) and grapples with immigration, citizenship, queerness, commerce, and the intersection of gender roles. .
As you’d expect in a show about electronics, the lighting design (Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew) is eye-catching, from the dreamy aquamarine to the faint twin beams of a car’s headlights in the distance. Special outfits (designed by “Project Runway” alum Mondo Guerra) that were deliberately edgy included a pink, princess dress and a mermaid-cut white and black bar-striped dress with a fringe and headpiece.
“American (television) visions” can be repetitive at times. But the product still surprises and delights — so don’t touch that dial.
American (television) scenes
Through Oct. 16 at New York Theater Workshop, Manhattan; nytw.org runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes.