All Things Entertaining and Cultural
It asks for more than usual suspension of disbelief as it turns a plausible, realistic situation into a fantasy of great or even phenomenal proportion. Sometimes the twist is charming, arrived at by a series of bizarre tales or events that lead to something wonderful or miraculous for a lead character you are pleased to see receive his or her wish. Sometimes, and more often than not, the plot maneuvers are just bizarre, so tedious and complex you don’t care if anyone gets what he or she wants as long as he or she gets it soon.
Jose Rivera’s “Brainpeople,” as presented by Luna Theater, has all the trappings of magical realism, and in the end, thanks to actress Jessica Gruver, some of its allure. Characters speak in turn telling intricate, imagistic stories that reveal a deep emotional scar, wound, or secret that colors their lives and causes them a lot of unhappiness or unrest. They are, in a way, unburdening their minds in a setting and situation that allows for it, perhaps even demands it. Language is heightened and loaded with florid phrases and dense metaphors, often of a sensual or sexual cast. Drama, as Amanda Schoonover demonstrates, is built into the revelatory speeches. The interweaving of the individual stories leads to a surprising, almost mystical, outcome that fulfills at least one character’s most ardent desire, for better or for worse.
Rivera sets his play in the beautifully appointed dining room of a grand old home that is heavily guarded by a private army because the unnamed city in which it is situated is under constant attack and subject to strict curfews and other restrictions. Residents of the city can be arrested or made to suffer indignities at any time. The dining room, as furnished by designer Dirk Durossette with impeccable taste, is an elegant fortress, a refuge in a sea of political trouble against which Rivera’s characters, three women, are unlikely to take arms.
The occasion is a lavish, symbolic meal, served on porcelain from silver trays and on a solid antique wooden table complete with decorative carvings, a maroon damask runner and lovely candlesticks holding red candles. Mayannah, a rich heiress with more than a hint of eccentricity and an advanced sense or ritual and tradition, leaves her secure home once each year to seek two strangers to invite to a dinner party that marks the anniversary of her parents’ deaths during an expedition they took to India where they were killed and devoured by a tiger.
Her guests in “Brainpeople” are a poverty-stricken woman who has multiple personalities, several of which she exhibits during the course of Rivera’s play, and a struggling but less destitute young woman who has suffered a disastrous parting from her much loved paramour and is looking for a way to escape both the memory of him and the martial law that makes the city into a virtual prison, even for those who mind their own business and have no political or criminal leanings. Such escape seems possible because Mayannah pays the people who accept her invitation, the amount they receive, a possible maximum of $20,000, being in direct proportion to how long they stay and how many exotic dishes they ingest. The disappointed romantic intends to use her hostess’s largesse to relocate to a friendlier land.
Mayannah is particular about her dinner companions. They must have physical traits that interest her. Rosemary/Rosie/Rosalind/Etc., the woman of many faces and voices, was selected because of her hands. Her legion of personae is an amusing surprise, a bonus of sorts as expertly played by Amanda Grove. Ani, the romantic who takes care to remind people her name is pronounced “AH-nee,” was asked because Mayannah admires her eyes.
Ani and the various manifestations of Rosemary cannot quite relax in spite of Mayannah’s lovely and comfortable dining room, and the safety it affords. Each of Rosemary’s personalities wants to know where she is and what is expected of her. Ani is similarly curious and must less trusting. Money was the motive for both women’s attendance. Matters do not improve when Mayannah announces the aromatic meat she is serving is tiger, allegedly an offspring of the beast that killed her parents decades earlier.
The Luna audience is as unclear about what to think as Ani and Rosemary are. “Brainpeople’s” most potent lure is the mystery about exactly why Mayannah chose these women to be her guests. There are hints of danger even as Jessica Gruver, playing Mayannah, exudes cultivated graciousness and generous hospitality in creating her character. Could this gentle, well-bred articulate woman have evil designs? We wonder.
We wonder even more about Rosemary and Ani. Mayannah tends to reveal her motives within Rivera’s exposition. The others seem to be involved mostly for the meal, which Ani is loathe to touch — “I don’t care what anyone says. We would still be eating cat for dinner.” In the manner that is a staple of magical realism, both guests launch into long monologues that relate the stories of their lives, in particular the traumas that inform their everyday thought processes and behavior. Amanda Grove has and meets a particular challenge, as she tells Rosemary’s saga while slipping in and out of that characters raft of personalities, each one of which requires a different accent.
The women’s stories are interesting because they are unusual and involve so much description. They are interesting but not gripping. You listen to them looking for clues about what may have attracted Mayannah to this pair, individually and as a couple. You are less taken with Rosemary’s need to live by her several wits, and her concern about what Rosie and other personae do when she’s “not around,” or with Ani’s angst and loneliness than you are with how all they say relates to Mayannah. You want to hear a thread that will give “Brainpeople” a semblance of logic and a reason for being played for us. You enter the women’s brains, several brains when you include all the women Rosemary comprises. The journey is unmoving. For all of the variety Grove and Amanda Schoonover, as Ani, give their speeches, and no matter how passionate either actress, particularly Schoonover, becomes during her stream-of-conscious recitation, their revelations remain more informational than compelling. At least in Ani’s stories, you hear about an affection that seems to tie in with we know about Mayannah’s father.
Luna’s production keeps you guessing about Mayannah’s purpose in having an annual feast. Cogitating on that is the one bit of curiosity, the tissue of suspense. Otherwise, Rivera throws in a lot of red herrings, like the municipal turmoil, that periodic sound effects and the women’s reactions remind you is in progress, and extraneous bits about the people in Rosemary’s head.
“Brainpeople” may be too verbal a piece to elicit much excitement. It has a few comic moments, such as Rosemary lashing into a communal bowl of rice and beans as if it’s only for her and Mayannah’s elaborate serving of appetizing chunks of tiger, but it never establishes much empathy for the women, even as they talk about hearts being broken, living with hunger, feeling abandoned, or shouldering responsibility for an event that was never in the character’s control. Curiosity about where everything leads keeps interest alive. Anticipating the magic that might occur becomes a personal game. But for all of the opulence Durossette provides, some of the bemused looks Gruver or Schoonover give to others present, or all of the musical quality Grove and Schoonover give their readings, “Brainpeople” doesn’t take off as more than a curio, a set of tales that seem to be plotted more for their lurid strangeness than to move a play forward.
The ironic part is it is more. Once Gruver fills in missing pieces of Mayannah’s story, Rivera’s play shows its path.
Don’t take from that last sentence that “Brainpeople” or Gregory Scott Campbell’s production is predictable. Mayannah’s information doesn’t necessary give the ending away, but it does lead towards a likely conclusion as it coalesces the fragments of information we have gathered from all three women so far.
A satisfaction comes from watching Rivera and Campbell’s company wring magic from the real, but it may come too late to keep earlier parts of Luna’s “Brainpeople” from being a tad slow and unfulfilling. The “ahhh” when the magic occurs, and the neatness with which all we hear and witness fits in place, elicits a wry nod and grin, but it doesn’t make up for the mire of information, some barely germane, we must endure to arrive at that point of admiration.
Although I found a lot of Rivera’s language and imagery so thick and atmospheric, I could smell it, I enjoyed his magical ending more than I appreciated his overall work. Rivera’s final revelation gives “Brainpeople” a sense of fun and seems a happy conclusion for both Mayannah and her guests, all 12 of them if you count the ones in Rosemary’s repertoire.
I had a good time seeing where the clues led and shared the elation Gruver conveyed when she saw Ani and Rosemary were going to provide all she needed from them and that her judgment was on target when she chose them from among the multitudes to come to her home.
Luna’s “Brainpeople” leaves you contented with its ending, but Campbell’s production would have been stronger if Rivera’s play had beguiled us for the duration instead of in spurts. Good as they are, Grove and Schoonover do not totally arrest your attention as they tell of events and experiences so critical to their being. Rivera has written their recitations as if they were litanies. It may have been preferable for salient information to come out in small doses, as happens with Mayannah, rather than in one long, involved outpouring. When Mayannah does tell her story, about how her parents left her behind when they went to India and how she always believed she could have saved their lives had she been with them, it has impact because it solves some of the mysteries and exposes the obsession that gives Mayannah’s life, and her annual dinner, some purpose. Rosemary’s and Ani’s monologues only show why they are susceptible, and even ripe, for change and why a social invitation, with remuneration, like Mayannah’s would attract them.
The result is a mixture. The premise of Mayannah’s dinner party, and the mysteriousness of its ritual, not to mention its main course, diverts and causes suspense. That suspense abates during the long passages of exposition. It is replaced by satisfaction, and some joy, when all of Rivera’s loose ends tie, by magical realism, into something special for Mayannah, but the going is rough during the middle sequences when Rosemary and Ani deliver their tales of woe, so the neat and wistful ending also comes as a relief, a reward for slogging through the denser and less engaging parts of Rivera’s prose.
So much about Gregory Scott Campbell’s production is admirable. I could move into Durossette’s realistic dining room, even with some of its religious touches, such as a cross that, when accompanied with Mayannah’s black dress, give the impression the hostess may be a fanatic or some kind. To keep in tone with magical realism, Durossette balances his window display-worthy dining room with expressionist windows that jump from their frames like pop-up pictures.
Millie Hiibel turns in her usual fine job on costumes, making Mayannah look chic, glamorous, and celebratory in her black dress while Rosemary has the look of a British housewife and Ani looks as if she took advantage of a sale at Urban Outfitters. All appropriate, all indicative of the characters at hand.
Jessica Gruver exudes a life of wealth, privilege, and indulgence in a form of fantasy as Mayannah. She has just the right note of glee as she explains the tiger dinner to her guests. She is neither teasing, as if to say, “Look at the peculiar dinner to which I’ve lured you,” nor arch, as if to imply, “I love tiger, don’t you?” She maintains the perfect note of surprise and a touch of delight in presenting such an exotic meal.
Gruver responds well to her castmates. Her take when she leaves Roseanne, originally introduced to her as Rosemary, and comes back to find Rosie is both interesting and funny. If the audience loses patience with Ani’s speech, Gruver’s Mayannah doesn’t. She is always the cordial host and shows great interest in what she is hearing.
When Rivera’s magic happens, and Mayannah realizes that this time she found the right two guests to fulfill her fantasy, Gruver openly expresses her character’s triumph. It is a winning moment.
Amanda Grove has the monumental task of making multiple personalities comic and a cause for concern. She adeptly springs from one persona to another, sometimes lingering on one among Rosemary’s crew long enough for us and her companions to become comfortable with her before veering off on another direction. It is as Rosemary that she is most effective because Rosemary is the most natural of her manifestations. As with Ani’s, Rosemary’s big revelation fails to rivet. Rivera is more to blame for that than Grove.
In the midst of Mayannah’s exposition, Grove has to murmur phrases about poverty, deprivation, life, and death. The actress handles these moments well, but you wonder why Rivera included them. They seem to be more ponderous and self-consciously disruptive than necessary, integral, or affecting.
Amanda Schoonover’s Ani is the practical member of the assembled trio. Schoonover gives her an everyday plainness and the attitude of someone who would put up with none of the intrigue surrounding the tiger and other of Mayannah’s choices if it wasn’t for the $20,000 that can buy her freedom from the oppression she describes.
Schoonover provides the core of reality “Brainpeople” needs. Her Ani supplies the “Oh, brother” we feel when Mayannah relates her plan for the dinner. She is appropriately comic and does a wonderful job with the speech Rivera gives her. “Wonderful” means finding variety in delivery and giving sincere emphasis to the parts of Ani’s story that would be most searing to the psyche. Unfortunately, with all the emotion Schoonover invests, Rivera writes her speech to be as much of a whine as it is a plea, and Ani’s plight doesn’t muster the emotional regard for the character Schoonover works so hard and skillfully to make sympathetic.
“Brainpeople” runs through Saturday, May 24 at Luna Theater, 620 S. 8th Street (8th and Kater), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 6 p.m. Sunday, May 11, and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 18. A 7 p.m. show is scheduled for Thursday, May 22. Tickets range from $25 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-704-0033 or going online to www.lunatheater.org.