Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Elements of "Orange Julius"

Last Wednesday night, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater & Page 73 presented the New York Premiere of “Orange Julius” by Basil Kreimendahl as directed by Dustin Wills.

At the end of 90 minutes of fine acting by the small cast on the compact stage, I asked myself, “What was that play about?” 

Orange Julius” has many elements.

The five-person cast was fabulous, particularly Stephen Payne as Julius and Mary Testa as his long-suffering wife France — I do not recall ever hearing her name, but that was her name according to the program.  Of course, it was his name that was important:  Naming a Vietnam vet “Julius” allowed him to make a joke about Orange Julius while linking his name with Agent Orange.

Mr. Payne and Ms. Testa played with utter naturalness, creating organically grown and shaped and developed characters in beautifully textured performances.

Their children were called “Nut” (played by Jess Barbagallo) and “Crimp” ( played by Irene Sofia Lucio).  The first time we see her she’s crimping her hair and threatening to crimp that of her little sister.  These two have a lovely sibling rivalry, taunting, teasing, helping one another.  A real relationship on paper, although a real connection between Mr. Barbagallo and Ms Lucio seemed lacking. 
In rehearsal:  Stephen Payne and Jess Barbagallo (Photo Credit:  Bruce Cohen)
The play takes place in the family garage, which sometimes seems to play a living room, sometimes a car, and, when the garage door is open, Vietnam.  Kate Noll’s set design was simple and clear, evoking a time, an economic class, a trap.

Montana Levi Blanco’s costume design was excellent — every person was wearing clothes befitting the character. That’s good costume design, to be essentially unnoticed.  The small space was well lit by Barbara Samuels and the sound by Palmer Hefferan was effective.  Director Dustin Wills’ staging used the tight quarters to excellent advantage.

The play begins in the 1980s, told in flashbacks by an ever-present onstage narrator — Nut — who talks way too much and is not quite reliable.  She — or he — is earnest, but memory is not fact, as noted when Nut says he was 7, 9, or 8.  Later she was 12, or 10 or 13. 

Nut is of small stature.  While referred to throughout as a girl, a daughter, a sister, Nut is played by a male.  Nut speaks of wanting to go through a past life regression, to the audience, and to his mother when still pre-pubescent.  Is this play Nut’s past life regression?  The confusion is not clearly settled (perhaps not for Nut either), even when Nut’s older sister offers him/her a training bra.  Nut at some point was a girl, but enters the Vietnam scene clearly as a male. 

Nut is simultaneously engaging and annoying.  Sister “Crimp” is sometimes mean or angry, always the epitome of a big sister bestowing wisdom and love on her younger sister, Nut.  At least one character is missing, a brother referenced in several scenes but never seen.  Is he dead?  Is he in a hippie commune feuding with his Vietnam vet father?  There’s a story left untold.  Not every story need be told, yet the missing brother nagged at me and held my interest longer than Nut did.  Because Nut is telling the story, it’s an awful lot about him/her when it is Julius and Mary who are the most interesting characters.

Back to my original question:  What is this play about?  What point is playwright Kreimendahl trying to make?

ەThe effect of war on the next generation?

ەThe aftermath of science used for evil (i.e., Agent Orange)?

Possible fact:  Julius went to war, was attacked by American military industrial complex and fatally poisoned with Agent Orange.  It was vile from the very beginning and it took decades to kill, but kill it did, via multiple cancers.

Not quite possible fact:  Nut says that in Vietnam, a girl was born the same day he was and her father too had been poisoned with Agent Orange.  The Vietnamese father was dead and the girl was born with bulging eyes that could never close. 

Is that true?  How could Nut know that?  We only know what Nut tells us, shows us, but we readily believe that Julius was poisoned with Agent Orange and died a slow death psychologically and physically.  Therefore, should it not follow that we believe that a girl was born in Vietnam the same day Nut was, with a birth defect, possibly connected to the poisoning of her father with Agent Orange.

ەIs the play about the nature of Self?  Of Truth?
In rehearsal:  Director Dustin Wills and Ruy Iskandar (Photo Credit: Bruce Cohen)
There are many flashbacks to Vietnam played beyond the open garage door with Julius and the angry foulmouthed soldier “Ol’ Boy” (only named in the program), well played by Ruy Iskandar. Julius and “Ol Boy” are there, but so is “Nut.”  Or at least the actor is.  Was his “past life” self there, is he playing someone else, is he playing his father?  But Julius was in the same scenes.  It’s not that they weren’t good compact little scenes.  It’s that they didn’t make much sense as a part of the whole.  Is this Nut in his memories of another life?  Has this character in Vietnam anything to do with Nut?  Are any of Nut’s memories reliable? 

An old television is on a worktable in the garage.  It is often on through the play, showing old films and television programs and a lot of “Platoon.”  I do not have clear memories of that film, just the scenes repeatedly shown in movies about war movies.  An audience cannot be expected to remember the film, and yet I think much of it was re-enacted in the Vietnam flashbacks, so what was the story of Julius and why was Nut re-enacting “Platoon?”
In rehearsal:  Irene Sofia Lucio and Mary Testa (Photo Credit: Bruce Cohen)
Meanwhile, Nut’s sister grows up to be a nurse who is defecated on by a patient she was turning to prevent bedsores.  While this was clearly not on purpose, still, this is what she thinks her life is, being “dumped” on. She is bitter.  Her choices seem to be based on what she knows she can do (take care of sick people) but which do not please her.  She tried to help her mother care for her father, but France wouldn’t always allow it.  France needs help and cries out for it, but does not accept it from her children.  Ms. Testa’s pain is heartbreaking. 

It’s difficult to know over what time period the episodic play takes place:  mostly in the 1980s, although once Nut says it’s 2004.  There are some touching moments, some funny ones, some sad ones. Late in the play, and presumably in time, France tries to feed her husband baby food, which may be all that he can stomach.  He pushes the spoon away, makes a mess as a child would, and pushes France’s hand away.  He then gently clasps her wrist.  He is still Julius, her husband.  The moment is brief, but memorable.  Julius is broken, supported by his family.  He is angry, he is in pain, he has terrible memories.  France is cracking under the strain but holds the family together no matter what.  Sister “Crimp” traveled in and out, seemingly always there until we’re told she lived in another part of the country.  At some time or another.  Time matters.

Nut appears to have been transgender in a time that would not be forgiving or understanding.  That issue, however, comes off as a sidebar, a distraction from the real story of Julius & France.  If the play is supposed to be about Nut discovering herself as male, why isn’t that the story?  Why not tell Julius’ story with a son?  We don’t know why Nut is telling us all this, and since she or he isn’t a reliable narrator, we may never know.

All in all, I liked everything about the production except the play, because the playwright could not make up his mind as to what it was about.  Many interesting elements, interesting moments, interesting characters. But too many elements.  It was a surprisingly long 90 minutes.

~ Molly Matera