With an emphasis on community and collaboration, Relatively Theatre, founded earlier this year, looks to produce work which shakes up, questions, and refocuses traditional perspectives and understandings of the human conditions. If Dis-Connections, their first production, is any indication, they are off to an auspicious start.
Written and directed by Relatively's artistic director, David Milch, Dis-Connections focuses on Jonah, a young, gay Jewish man struggling to bring together his disconnected identities - with a little nudge from his poker-playing, Mae West-wannabe grandmother. As he re-lives the crucial moments of his life where his identities have come into conflict, Grandma Mae guides Jonah through a journey of self-discovery and sexual awakening.
Loosely structured as a series of monologues interrupted by uncomfortably brief dialogue scenes, Dis-Connections never quite captures Jonah's ever-shifting perceptions of himself, offering instead a Cook's Tour of the universal highlights of coming out angst. And at a rather trim 75 minutes, it never quite sheds its gay or Jewish stereotypical skin to emerge a fully fleshed-out work, remaining a sketchy, if intriguing, blueprint.
However, there are so many hauntingly beautiful moments where Milch, in both his visually rich writing and cleverly lucid direction, so perfectly captures an emotion, a memory or an attitude that the effect is sometimes dazzling. In one extraordinary scene, Jonah reprises an earlier reverie about the bondage of the leather tefillin during his bar mitzvah while a man, known only as Leatherboy, recounts his first sexual experience at a leather bar in New York City. The concurrent emotional pull summoned by Milch's poetic, incredibly sensual language is tender, yet pulses with an explosive, and completely unexpected, originality. Would that it were part of an organic whole, instead
of a beautifully written set piece among many beautifully written set pieces.
Kristopher Monroe infused Jonah's turmoil with a touching vulnerability that, combined with his pale, expressive face and waiflike body was reminiscent of the young Audrey Hepburn. Craig Skelton, beefy, calm and self-assured as Leatherboy, handled the potentially ridiculous role with wit, grace and a surprising elegance. As Grandma Mae, Christopher John Andersson, in a baroque interpretation that called to mind Mae West as filtered through the personae of Edna Mae Oliver and Dame Edna Everage, nimbly glossed over the Long Island Jewish grandmother stereotype to create a character at once prickly, warm, and deliciously real.
Bobby Harrell's very precise lighting, Elaine Sun's spare, utilitarian set, and Kathryn Clanton's costumes (including some outstanding original leatherwork by David Samuel Mendes) gave the production a clean, no-nonsense look, while Mark Huang's atmospheric sound effectively evoked the no-man's land that stifles Jonah.
Dis-Connections is Milch's first play, and as such, shows a nascent talent still working to find his own voice. Already an accomplished director, perhaps he should collaborate with another director - thus giving him the time to refine another of his obvious talents, as well as fulfill the mission of the fledgling, but already vital Relatively Theater.
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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita