Two years ago at CATF, playwright Chisa Hutchinson caused a stir with her rich and raucous two-character dramedy Dead and Breathing, about the right to die and the haves versus the have nots.
This year, she’s back with The Wedding Gift, a fantasy that takes place so far in the future, according to the playwright, “it’s stupid.” Hutchinson likes to pack her plays with ethical discussions, hot-button issues and debates and The Wedding Gift is no exception. At first, it seems like a metaphor for slavery, brutality and violent police force, but then it skids into an inter-species love story, screwball comedy, mass destruction and a depiction of an evolved society.
If that seems like a lot to cram into 90 minutes, you’re right. Watching the play, you get that lurching feeling you had in the later seasons of the TV show “Lost,” where you caught an episode and then sat on the sofa wondering “What in God’s name did I just see?
Any disoriented feelings are deliberate on the playwright’s part, as we are meant to see the play through the perspective of Doug (Jason Babinsky), the wedding gift of the title. He is plopped, naked and chained in a cage, into the nuptial ceremony of Nahlis (Margaret Ivey) and Beshrum (Damian Thompson), an otherworldly princess and prince–tall, beautiful, regal, like African royalty and wearing towering headdresses, platform shoes and clothes (Costume designer Peggy McKowen clearly had a blast designing the futuristic frocks and foppish wear) that are part steampunk, part 1970s Superfly. The set design also wows with its Avatar-like jeweled, jungly palette.
Nahlis, Beshrum and the others speak an alien language with feminine “shush-shush” inflections accompanied by graceful, pinkie-pointed gestures. Doug, for example, is “shimseh,” which means slave or pet.
The Wedding Gift
closes July 31, 2016
Details and tickets
He’s gob-smacked by being on Earth with his six-year-old daughter Hannah one minute, and the next minute offered up like some exotic canape on a platter. He’s befuddled over what he’s supposed to be doing, but after a disappointing wedding night where Beshrum shows his immaturity by using the universal language for poking fun at what he considers small breasts, it becomes apparent Doug is meant to be Nahlis’ sex slave.
Jailed, chained to the floor and clad in an embellished mini-diaper, Doug is feeling anything but frisky. An empathetic priestess, Onjah (Nafeesa Monroe), is half-human and haltingly tries to communicate with Doug and let him in on his fate. But otherwise, he doesn’t understand the language and is being poked and prodded by the guards, gawked and giggled over by the servants and generally treated like a piece of meat.
Eventually, Doug warms up to Nahlis, who, although cunning and proud, is wounded by the neglect of her new, petulant boy-husband. She comes to Doug for comfort, and little by little it turns into something else. The evolution of their relationship is expressed in a series of sweet, quick scenes where a Translator (Edward O’Blenis) interprets their dialogue with diva-like attitude and later, when they become lovers and pass the time between love-making bouts teaching each other dance moves (like “Y.M.C.A”) and words for body parts.
This is all adorable and gives new meaning to “meet cute,” but the love story dilutes the whole idea of experiencing the injustices and indecencies of slavery. When Nahlis agrees to try to escape with Doug, does that all of a sudden make them equals?
And what about the status of hybrids such as Onjah–are hybrids like biracial people, depending on your point of view higher up on the color hierarchy or part of ethnic identity yet not? Given the imperious behavior of Nahlis, Beshrum and Nahlis’ parents Kamsuh (Bianca Laverne Jones) and Torosh (Brian D. Coats), they definitely convey theirs as the superior race.
It’s a conundrum and The Wedding Gift is full of them. Serious discussions of race, imprisonment, slavery and privilege mingle with romantic comedy and some fight scenes that are absurdly funny. Not to mention an apocalyptic warning at the end about the destruction of Earth as we know it.
Strange brew and despite striking, solid performances by the cast, The Wedding Gift is like getting a weird present from a relative and wondering “Whew! What were they thinking?”
The Wedding Gift by Chisa Hutchinson . Director: May Adrales . Featuring: Margaret Ivey, Damian Thompson, Nefeesa Monroe, Bianca Laverne Jones, Brian D. Coats. Jason Babinsky, Edward O’Blenis. Set Design: David M. Barber. Costume Design: Peggy McKowen. Lighting Design: D.M. Wood. Original Music and Sound Design: Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes. Projection Design: Hannah Marsh. Fight Director: Aaron Anderson. Technical Director: Zack Hiatt. Production Stage Manager: Debra A. Acquavella. Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.>