The 17th annual New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)is upon us and though I’ve never covered it before, one new play came to my attention and intrigued me enough to venture forth.
A world premiere, Peninsula by Nathan Wright, began development in 2008 as part of Mr. Wright’s MFA thesis at Columbia University. It was further developed during the summer of 2012 through a workshop production by Nadia Foskolou at Manhattan Repertory Theatre. Now it comes to us in a fully staged and lit production (though one with no scenery) for just five performances through August 22nd. It’s playing in a small black box called the Robert Moss Theatre at 440 Lafayette Street, across the street from the Public Theatre.
Those are the facts, but they tell you nothing of the size and scope of this magnificent first effort by young Nathan Wright, which includes superb and imaginative staging by Ms. Foskolou and the razor sharp and very moving performance in the central role by Josué Guttiérez Guerra, only now in his third year in Columbia’s MFA program for actors.
As “Tiago,” a refugee from Rio in Brazil, living when we meet him in a quiet peninsula in Northern Michigan, he is captivating. From the opening monologue, which is delivered underwater by a clearly drowning Tiago, to the final quiet moments of the 90 minute play, Mr. Wright intrigues us at first, confuses then clarifies, and uses a very intricate series of quick exchanges between past in Brazil and present in Michigan, some of them happening simultaneously, both involving Tiago but each peopled by different characters.
It’s a dazzling arrangement, and Mr. Wright pulls it off brilliantly.
It’s never easy to know where this play is headed, but it always keeps us stuck in its web and we have no desire to escape. Tiago is an enigma, but that’s only because he isn’t yet fully formed. As played by the movie star handsome Josué Guerra, his confusion about his sexual identity, the duality that’s set up in the Western society to which he’s escaped, his concerns with ethnicity, class, race and sexuality allows the playwright to pull back long enough for us to see things as part of a larger whole.
I know this sounds like mumbo jumbo but believe me, each character is a mixture of much. There is the wild and reckless Nelson and the girl, Lily, with whom Tiago has grown up – both in Brazil, both driving him to his doom. He does escape to Michigan with money that came to him illegally, and there he meets young men who lead him further astray because he has neither the experience nor the advice and counsel of a more mature mentor.
Peninsula is exactly the sort of work that should be given breathing room in a festival of new works. An organization called In Absentia Productions is listed as producer of this newest outing for the play. I would assume it’s the company’s hope that reviews and audience response will encourage a full transfer to a commercial stage, off Broadway.
It would be a pity if this entire cast were not retained, for there isn’t bad apple in the barrel. In addition to Mr. Guerra, who is monumental in an exhausting and textured performance, Kellan Peavy as a spoiled rich white kid living with his mother in a swanky summer home is good looking and lustful and not much else. His Mother is trying to keep up appearances as she tries to keep the teenager, Tommy,on the straight and narrow while going through a dreadful marriage with his father who is mostly away. There is a decent local boy named Bennett who tries to bring sense to Tiago for purely unselfish reasons. John Zdrojeski milks much of the play’s humor inthis role, as he reflects much of the audience’s reaction to the heightened goings on in his small and usually dull home town. Marc Sinoway and Vanessa Bartlett viscerally complete the sextet of players as “Nelson” and “Lily” the slightly crazed Brazilian playmates who bring about Tiago’s life crisis, the incident that sets him on the run from home to a world he hopes to find more hospitable.
Though several scenes describe the total nudity of the characters as they prepare to swim, or to explore their new sexual needs, Ms. Foskolou wisely prefers metaphor, and there is no really graphic nudity or violence onstage. What’s happening is perfectly clear, and more effective when suggested rather than shown.
This is an important work, still somewhat embryonic (the opening monologue and some shorter follow ups are in a very different style of language, and are on occasion off-putting), and perhaps in need of a small bit of trimming, but this is a writer who has an ear for dialogue in the tradition of David Mamet, for size and scope à la Tony Kushner, for the poetry of Tennessee Williams. Yet he has his own voice and I’m certain we’ll hear more from him, hopefully soon.
Keep an eye out for Peninsula. If it lands near you, treat yourself to an enthralling experience. And keep another eye out for Mr. Guerra — in ten years he’ll be playing Stanley Kowalski, but next year you might see him in Barefoot In The Park. That’s what I believe is the range of this firebrand.
Peninsula runs thru Aug 22nd at the Robert Moss Theatre at 440 Studios, 440 Lafayette St, 3rd Floor, NYC. As part of Fringe NYC. Details and tickets