All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Her mother’s poverty means a series of power shut-offs, a steady diet of macaroni and cheese, and a sense of hopelessness that is not leavened by an acceptance letter from Yale that might be a figment of Ana’s imagination but seems real enough as it opens Quiara Alegría Hudes’s messy, pseudo-poetic claptrap, “Lulu’s Golden Shoes.”
Hudes means to be imagistic and to create a world to which Ana can escape in the company of Latina firebrand in superhero spandex, Barrio Grrrl, referred to as “The Amazing Voice” and assayed with playful sparkle by Leah Walton.
The problem is Hudes is too heavy-handed and self-conscious in her approach. Like many young playwrights today, she wants to knock your socks off but never considered you might be wearing sandals (and therefore no socks).
“Lulu’s Golden Shoes” doesn’t engage. It assaults. Hudes’s writing is flowery and filled with strong phrases, but they are just wordplay. There’s no real feeling or meaning behind them, only a exercise in verbiage that sounds impressive.
In Brenna Geffers’s production for Philadelphia’s Flashpoint Theatre, nothing registers as poignant or important. Hudes gives her play no core. Lots goes on. The Amazing Voice is amusing, especially when you realize, and she acknowledges, her powers may be limited. There is a pair of menacing men who approximate the much better drawn Goldberg and McCann in Pinter’s “The Birthday Party.” There’s even a whore, Lulu, or Rosie Lulu to give her complete name, the one by which Ana calls her and refers to her, that has some sage street philosophy to impart. In general, “Lulu’s Golden Shoes” is a hodgepodge that cannot be saved by Hudes’s overreaching symbolism or purported look at a young girl who’s life is truly at a crossroads if not an edge.
As she did in “Water by the Spoonful,” a better play produced two seasons ago by Arden Theatre, Hudes tries to sell half-baked ideas as finished products. You see glimmers of her talent, but she has an immature sensibility and doesn’t seem to understand when she’s making her characters dopes instead of people we can embrace and root for.
Ana is sympathetic. She seems to recognize something better lies outside the Philadelphia barrio where she lives. She has desires about a less rough, more cultured life. She also puts her reality in decent perspective, accepting and understanding behavior and conditions others may unjustly criticize.
But it’s all window dressing. Hudes is an impressionist who works in slashing strokes and tries to approximate quality by going into heightened flights of language or making observations that, in the long run, turn out to be too subjective or naïve to make any solid universal point. In “In the Heights,” she had the guideline of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s intentions to keep her conventional and in-line. Left to her own devices, Hudes’s too crude, too flashily slapdash to earn even respect.
And don’t tell me about Pulitzer Prizes! For journalism, yes. But for theater, you’re talking about people who judge the printed word and don’t take theatricality or texture of a work into consideration. There are, and will be, Pulitzer Prize winners and nominees for drama that impress. For the most part, take a look at the recipients, and see how many of them you would want to see or produce.
“Lulu’s Golden Shoes” is scattered. It has some cohesion in that it tells the story of a single character, Ana, as seen through the prism of her parent, her fears, her heroes, and her supernatural helpmate. Hudes puts poverty, paranoia, and perseverance on stage but not in a significant or satisfying way. It’s as if she lucks into something interesting on occasion.
Watching “Lulu’s Golden Shoes” is a challenge because fantasy encroaches while realism provides the stronger scenes, primarily the ones in which Ana has discussions, including confrontations, with her mother, Mary, played well by Anita Holland.
Mary, Ana quickly points out, is illiterate, but she had common sense. She may not be proud that she earns too little to keep the electricity going, so she and Ana are stuck cutting onions so they can cook the six pounds of pork chops that would otherwise rot in the stilled refrigerator (although why one needs the onions, except as a gimmick to engineer crying one can’t know), but she goes ahead and makes the most of her bad situation.
You know actually reality is left on a back step when Ana’s estranged father suddenly burst back into her and Mary’s lives hoping to relieve some of their penury by sharing $1,000 he won in a Pick Six lotto. Yes, it seems fitting that this otherwise absent man pays to restore the lights in his ex-wife and child’s apartment, and, yes, it seems accurate that he and Mary would treat themselves to a rare night out with a hundred and change, but it’s naïve to regard $1,000 as a lot of money, or enough to turn around a life.
Hudes spins her play in so many directions, it’s hard to keep track of which vector is supposed to be the focus.
Obviously, Ana’s development at a turning point in her life, the time she is about the enter womanhood, and possible Yale, is of concern. But Hudes doesn’t concentrate steadily on that, She has other fish to fry.
The contrast between poverty and glamor takes up a lot of her attention. So does cause and effect, which Hudes does not always approach logically.
The poverty is obvious. Mary has the smallest subsistence with nothing to spare and not enough to cover the essentials, but Ana shows no signs of pitching in. And Mary, though she has reasons to gripe and chooses decent targets at which to rail — banks, governments, utilities, credit agencies — is too willing to blame anyone and everyone else for her predicament and lack of help with in. Maybe this type of villainizing institutions is realistic. I do it myself. But Mary takes matters to an extreme. She wants every kind of forgiveness, but she doesn’t quite tackle her problems, functional illiteracy being one of them, while complaining about all of the forces against her.
In “Lulu’s Golden Shoes,” those forces take an physical form in two characters Hudes calls the Alchemists, men who try to convert ordinary substances, and one vital substance, to wealth-producing gold.
This is where the glamor comes in. Ana, as dressed by costumer Natalia de la Torre and played by Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez, is slovenly and unkempt beyond belief. She wears an oversized, formless orange T-shirt with some logo on it over an equally undefined long-sleeve sweat shirt and baggy sweat pants. If this is a young woman who is ready to go to Yale, she lacks common sophistication. Poverty does not dictate one has to look like a hopeless frump. Ana’s costume is an exaggeration and adds to the character’s lack of appeal.
Especially in a play in which books are judged by their covers. Perhaps the deepest Hudes goes is in exposing the attractiveness and allure of the superficial.
Hence, her title, “Lulu’s Golden Shoes.”
The shoes are literal, They’re about as gold as the earrings you bought at the dollar store, but they gleam and speak to Ana of class and elegance.
Rosie Lulu, the hooker in an apartment adjoining Mary and Ana’s, wears them on her nightly rounds. They are simply highly rakes wedgies with gold bangles encrusting their uppers, including around the elevated heel, and over the single elastic band through which you would slip your toes to don the shoes.
We’re talking a Payless clearance here. But Rosie Lulu uses the shoes to promote glamor, and Ana sees the well decked-out Rosie Lulu as the height of glamor.
Rosie Lulu is more practical, She, among all of the characters, including Mary, talks about life, Aaron Neville-like, as it is. She does not apologize for her profession, which makes the most profitable return on her capital, and she knows how to relax and enjoy her existence away from the street.
Rosie Lulu is as much a role model for Ana as Mary, her abuela (grandmother), who confuses Yale for “jail” when Ana speaks to her by telephone, and The Amazing Voice, a.k.a. Barrio Grrrl. Barrio Grrrl may be more practical, but Rosie Lulu can be just as wise. She can also be delusional. She purports to be an artist, and though the four paintings that decorate Thom Weaver’s set are decent enough is a basic way, Rosie Lulu’s alleged fashion designs are atrocious, especially a silly and cheap white T-shirt with some inane message on it.
So her casual wear is not the best. When Rosie Lulu heads out to make a living she dresses for success, gold shoes included.
Her gold shoes don’t just lure randy men on the street. They attract the attention of the Alchemists who take an interest in everything gold.
The Alchemists are Hudes’s representation of all that is wrong with the wrong. They are sinister and single-minded about reaping all of the riches in the world and presenting them to their overlord of sorts, Mammon incarnate.
Those Alchemists want Rosie Lulu’s shoes. So what if the gold is sprayed on some plastic disk linked to others to look shiny and high-toned? These men are on the hunt for every ounce of gold.
And they have something more nefarious in mind. Working on the hackneyed adage about whores having hearts of gold, they are executive sex workers on sight and extracting their organs to see if a heart of gold emerges.
It does. Then devolves into coal. Something is wrong with either the theory or the Alchemists’ storage techniques. They have to be perfected. Once it is, Hudesland says whore’s hearts are golden, so the Alchemists want as many as they can get.
They make Rosie Lulu a victim, although they are thwarted by the whore’s gold shoes coming magically to Ana instead of their grasp. When Mary, primping for her big date with her ex, co-opts the late Rosie Lulu’s wig and golden shoes, both found among Ana’s possessions, the Alchemists goes after Mary, who is decided not a prostitute, as well.
The only female left is Ana. (Barrio Grrrl doesn’t count because she’s imaginary and bodiless, at least to anyone who isn’t Ana or in Hudes’s audience).
Another possible point of the play is how Ana escapes the poverty-motivated fate that claimed her friend and mother. Can a woman avoid being branded a stale by men in general, let alone men to revel in the tawdry and seedy, men who are more than a little shady themselves? Can go on, or is she doomed to perpetuate the life led by Rosie Lulu and Mary? Yale may have something to say about that, but Ana has to make up her own mind. She even loses the sounding board of Barrio Grrrl as The Amazing Voice determines Ana no longer needs her protection or services.
As I said, there’s a lot to consider in “Lulu’s Golden Shoes” but Geffers’s production is a chore to watch because Hudes is all over the place with her ideas and images. She like someone who has what she regards as a good idea and just throws in it without considering flow or cohesion.
“Lulu’s Golden Shoes” suggests a lot, but it leads to little. Hudes hasn’t done her complete job. Scenes of her play explode like a series of randomly thrown paintballs. They make a splash, provide some color, but lack any real importance or substance.
Watching Geffers’s production I was bored, bored, and bored again. Mechanics behind devices like the Alchemists, gold shoes, gold hearts, and $1,000 sprees are so convenient and so transparent, they give you nothing to think about, especially when scenes play out so juvenilely and ham-handedly, accent on ham.
Hudes’s work is too sloppy and unformed to even consign to magical realism. About the only device that works in a consistent and sweetly giddy way is the appearance of Barrio Grrrl, who Leah Walton makes into a frazzled delight.
Yes, this superhero is an all-powerful being that nonetheless gives into doubts and has an appreciation for irony, Walton gives The Amazing Voice/Barrio Grrrl, a figure Ana has been carrying in her head from late infancy physical energy and solid footing, but she also seems confused a bit on exactly the best move Ana should make.
Walton wears de la Torre’s most successful costume, a spandex suit made of bright yellow (almost gold) and vibrant violet panels, The Amazing Voice present as a superhero, and she does play a critical as a sounding board for Ana, who for all intents and purposes, faces the world alone.
Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez is more exasperated and harried than charming as Ana. She is best at moments when her character is being flippant, facetious, and dismissive, times when Ana casts away the oppressiveness of reality and lets fly with the humor and intellect that presumably earned her a berth at Yale.
Ana’s costume is a mistake. There are stylish cheap clothes. The Ana Flashpoint presents is not ready to go more than two blocks from her barrio house yet alone venture to Yale. If this is how she looks, she has not even learned to look to Mary or Rosie Lulu, for some sense of neatness or making an impression. Of course, Rosie Lulu, in her sex worker get-up is a little too cheaply chic, but Mary, even in the clothes de la Torre gives her to battle City Hall and state welfare offices, actually serves as a good model for her daughter.
Anita Holland is straightforward as Mary, the character who conveys the most semblance of reality. Mary’s problems have made her practical, and even if she can’t read, she shows more worldly wisdom than the cocky Ana.
Holland portrays motherhood well and shows Mary might be all right with a slight attitude change and some undaunted ambition. She certainly knows how to regain her youth and spirit when her ex’s $1,000 buoys her.
Chris Anthony and Davey Stratton White are duly ominous as the Alchemists who want to gather as many human hearts as they may be able to convert to pure gold.
The Alchemists’ use in Hudes’s play in disjointed, but you catch on quickly to their primary purpose. Anthony does well doubling as Ana’s absent father. Stratton White has a fine scene as an unemployment who turns his interview with Mary into a negative power struggle.
Leah Walton makes Barrio Grrrl fun and lends some intensity to Geffers’s production. Jennifer Kidwell is merrily expansive as the revered and doomed Rosie Lulu. She loves the ease and clairity of Lulu’s thinking,
Thom Weaver’s set accommodates a lot of locales and is especially handsome when it features a pissoir.
“Lulu’s Golden Shoes” plays though Sunday, August 2, as produced by Flashpoint Theatre Company at the Caplan Studio Thratre, 211 Walmut Street, 16th floor, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 with some available discounts and can be obtained by calling 215-997-3312 or by visiting www.flashpointtheatre.org.