“Sometimes, a greater truth is revealed when the facts are fuzzy,” says Rebecca Holiday (Natalie Cutcher) in the second act of Rorschach Theatre’s production of Randy Baker’s new play, Forgotten Kingdoms. It’s a line that not only resonates in our post-truth, “fake news” world, but perfectly encapsulates the story being told on stage.
Forgotten Kingdoms takes place on a small island in Indonesia, outside the home-on-a-pier on which Americans David Holiday and his wife Rebecca are making their lives as missionaries along with young son Jimmy. Their hanging-by-a-thread home life is thrown further into chaos by the arrival of Yusuf, the son of a well-respected local leader who has recently joined David’s flock.
This production is a world premiere of Baker’s script, which was developed in Malaysia, Indonesia, and here in DC. The story is deeply personal for Baker, who was inspired to write it by his childhood growing up in Asia and the stories his grandfather, a Pentecostal missionary, would tell—and embellish. Though the events that unfold take place in 1983, the themes being addressed on stage—faith, truth, cultural exchange, forgiveness, the omnipresence of the past—are just as relevant in 2017.
As we enter this world, Yusuf’s father, who’s on death’s door, has been sent to talk to David, but he doesn’t understand why. Jimmy, he learns, has been suffering from seizures, speaking in riddles, and generally behaving oddly. His behavior has only gotten stranger since the night Jimmy joined his father as he healed a local girl through the power of his Christian faith, or so the story goes. Yusuf and David wind up engaging in a dance between Jesus and Allah, and the audience is let in on the fact that David hasn’t always been such a true believer and Rebecca may be less than thrilled with their family’s current living situation. Little do any of them know that events will soon change all their lives forever.
The always charismatic Sun King Davis conveys the rage that simmers just under David’s polished exterior, especially when played against Natalie Cutcher’s Rebecca. Jeremy Gee is totally believable as the rascally Jimmy. Rizal Iwan, who was cast in Indonesia for this role, deftly moves from Yusuf’s befuddlement to dominance as his conversations with David ebb and flow.
Baker’s script raises some thorny questions without offering any easy answers. Forgiveness is a major theme, and beyond the surface platitudes about God’s forgiveness come more nuanced quandaries about whether we ever can or should truly forgive ourselves for our past mistakes. And speaking of the past, the idea that the past is never really left behind and is, in fact, always present in the present. The characters grapple with this—for David and Rebecca, it’s their family’s past, while for Yusuf, who sees David’s presence on their island as yet another instance of his countrymen and women leaving their values and beliefs behind, it’s a matter of culture and history.
Major kudos must be given to the show’s designers; if there’s one thing that Rorschach does consistently well, it’s creating a world. Debra Kim Sivigny’s set design convincingly transforms the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Sprenger Theater into a house on stilts, allowing for engrossing moments of theatricality—as the hanging gossamer fabrics sway in the air-conditioning, it’s easy to believe that they’re being moved by a tropical breeze instead. Justin Schmitz’s sound design expertly evokes the ocean, without ever overwhelming. The real star, however, is Tyler Dubuc’s subtle lighting design, which precisely evokes the transition to nightfall without ever calling too much attention to itself—except in the moments when it does, to dazzling effect.
closes May 21, 2017
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Director Cara Gabriel does an excellent job of making the most of the limited space on the pier as the actors move ever-closer to the edge, both physically and emotionally.
Baker’s script offers plenty of bon mots (such as when David, with all the sincerity in the world, tells Yusuf “I’m not here to judge the past; I’m here to save the future”) that have the audience laughing, sighing, and even snapping along. Unfortunately, the exposition-saturated second act fails to deliver on the momentum and build-up of the first act, which ends with an exciting and intriguing bit of action. I found myself wondering whether the play may well have been stronger had it simply ended at intermission.
Forgotten Kingdoms is an ambitious and thought-provoking bit of world-building that is sure to spark a bevy of conversations among those lucky enough to see it. Mysticism mixed with the mundanity of everyday life reveals the ambiguity and potential for both misunderstanding and forgiveness that comes when different cultures with tightly-held beliefs butt up against one another.
Forgotten Kingdoms by Randy Baker. Directed by Cara Gabriel. Cast: Natalie Cutcher, Sun King Davis, Jeremy Gee, Rizal Iwan, and Vishwas. Set and costume design: Debra Kim Sivigny. Lighting design: Tyler Dubuc. Sound design: Justin Schmitz. Assistant set designer: Brian Gillick. Assistant lighting designer: Amanda C. Kircher. Stage manager: Linz Moore. Produced by andy Baker, Jenny McConnell Frederick, and Jonelle Walker. Reviewed by John Bavoso.