Ilia Isorelýs Paulino

Home of the Brave

Review of Alma, Yale Cabaret

The final show of Yale Cabaret 51, Alma, by first-year playwright Benjamin Benne, directed by Cat Rodriguez, intervenes subtly into the national discourse about immigration. On the surface, it’s about a mother and daughter experiencing crossed purposes and escalating anxieties about the daughter, Angel (Ciara Monique McMillian), scoring high enough on her SATs to get into USC, but that’s not the whole story. It’s also about Alma (Ilia Isorelýs Paulino) worrying about whether or not she will be deported when her daughter turns 21. The context of these concerns—as we are alerted by what seems a haunted TV demonically tuned to FOX and a certain blustering, bigoted presidential candidate—is the U.S. government’s efforts to deport the undocumented.

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Benne’s play—a bit like Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls earlier this season—takes what might simply be a charming genre piece about teen life and layers it with the meanings that political reality imposes on normal lives. Every teen, we might say, has enough to worry about when trying to get into college, but here a “catch-22” situation ratchets up the tension: when she turns 21, Angel will be old enough to sponsor Alma, but when Angel turns 21 she will no longer need a parent or guardian, by the rationale of the courts.

The way these issues come to light is handled subtly, and often comically, as the fractiousness of the two women is placed front and center. In a small, homey apartment that graces the Cab stage, Alma treats her daughter both solicitously and domineeringly. She arrives while Angel is out and there’s a dodging of certain issues—where has Angel been, and has she been studying or drinking?—and even an outburst in which Alma wields a flipflop the way some parents wield belts. Paulino, who can be very imposing with a voice that commands attention, delivers as well Paulino’s fragile side, and, notably, her willingness to manipulate her daughter through every emotion possible. She’s a livewire, at times incandescent.

Angel, for her part, gives as good as she gets. She has not been eating well or wisely and at one point barely makes it to the bathroom before she begins puking. She’s then willing to work the pathetic sickie for all its worth, sucking on a frozen pop. Later, after incurring sufficient wrath for the dreaded la chancla, she brings out a plush elephant to curry favor. McMillian has been the angel of the Cab this year with three remarkable performances, beginning with The Purple Flower at the start of the season and concluding with back-to-back shows in weeks seventeen and eighteen.

The play’s dramatic peak arrives with a sudden spike in alarm. While Trump blusters in increasing volume, Alma wails with a power some might reserve for watching an execution. The lights go out and a knock comes upon the door that feels like it has the full force of the most malevolent of ICE agents behind it. To live in fear of that knock is never to experience the “land of the free.” But watching Alma and Angel we are certainly in the home of the brave.

Benne knows how to serve up the sweet, the savory and the bitter, blending the flavors of real family life well to give us a full meal, depicting the bond of love under duress.

Director Rodríguez, who has been a vocal supporter of the anti-deportation defense of Nelson Pinos—living in sanctuary at New Haven’s First and Summerfield Methodist Church since November 2017—hopes the play can be restaged after Nelson’s day in court in Minneapolis in May. For information about Pinos, go here, and for helping with his legal defense costs, go here.

With this production, its eighteenth, Yale Cabaret 51 ends, concluding a season of engaged theater—“cultivating surprise, embracing divergence, and practicing compassion.” Congratulations to Co-Artistic Directors Molly FitzMaurice and Latiana “LT” Gourzong and Managing Director Armando Huipe for an inspiring season well done. The team for Yale Cabaret 52 was announced at the shows last week and will consist of Co-Artistic Directors Zachry J. Bailey, Brandon Burton, and Alex Vermillion, with Managing Director Jaime Totti.

 

Alma
By Benjamin Benne
Directed by Catherine María Rodríguez

Producer: Eliza Orleans; Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Phuong Nguyen; Lighting & Projection Designer: Samuel Kwan Chi Chan; Sound Designer: Marisa Areliano; Technical Director: Jenna Hoo; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey

Cast: Ciara Monique McMillian, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino

Yale Cabaret
April 25-27, 2019

Can History Be Healed?

Review of Seven Spots on the Sun, Yale School of Drama

As this gripping play goes on, Seven Spots on the Sun by Martín Zimmerman, directed by third-year Yale School of Drama directing student Jecamiah M. Ybañez, becomes an instance of folk history, one that derives its force from traumatic events. Designated as “The Town,” figures in a collective ensemble (Brandon E. Burton, Louisa Jacobson, Kineta Kunutu, JJ McGlone, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Jakeem Powell) voice a kind of stricken amazement at events that seem the stuff of legend. Zimmerman’s play, in treating the depredations of a civil war, its aftermath, and the effects of a general amnesty for war crimes, has its eye on the tragic course of more than one Latin American country, while the play’s manner lends itself to fable and the sort of retribution we may think of as Fate.

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Early on we learn that the town, which is overjoyed when radio transmissions recommence, accords special status to Moisés (Dario Ladani Sánchez), a former medic who has suffered more than most. So when he smashes the radio so as not to hear pronouncements about the newly instituted government, no one confronts him. The story of all he lost is told in parallel with the story of Mónica (Adrienne Wells), who speaks to the audience about her love for Luis (Robert Lee Hart), a miner in Ojona, who becomes a soldier because he expects it will provide more stability and an eventual pension. Wells’ straightforward address does much to give us direct access to life within the town.

Then the civil war comes, creating a horribly fraught world where victims of soldiers can be left to die in San Isidro’s town square while the town, frightened off by the hand-prints in white paint left as a warning, must endure the misery in their midst. As Belén, Moisés’ beloved, Sohina Sidhu’s emotional reaction to the cries of the dying boy (Powell) provides an important crux for the events to come. Whereas most of us have to read or watch news reports to be reminded, in the midst of our comfortable lives, that horrors are occurring elsewhere, Belén is unable to enjoy the mangoes that Moisés traded morphine for. Finally, goaded by her distress, Moisés agrees to take the boy into the clinic.

When soldiers are reported to be coming back to town, it’s understood that whoever has helped the boy will die. Moisés, despite his overt contempt for the cowardly priest Eugenio (José Espinosa), tries to find sanctuary in the church. Eugenio’s narration of what happens then is delivered by Espinosa as a shameful failure but also as if events are beyond his control—a feeling that gains conviction in the second part of the play. Meanwhile, Luis eventually returns from the war to his wife and newborn son, but he’s no longer the man his wife loved and she fears him.

The full details of the punishment visited upon Moisés are not revealed until late. In the play’s present, we see how, despite Moisés’ antipathy, Eugenio must come to him with a plea: there is a plague in the area that is besetting the children, its symptoms painful but sweet-smelling boils that cause death. Moisés reluctantly agrees to examine a child, then withdraws, appalled by his lack of ability and his own indifference. Eugenio comes again to tell him of a miracle: the child was immediately healed.

The parallel course of the play means that we shouldn’t be surprised that the child of Luis and Mónica will need to be healed by Moisés, but when we learn the part that Luis played in what became of Belén, the play creates a situation worthy of Solomon. At the heart of the dramatic situation is the question of atonement and forgiveness, and how wounds to the social body cannot be healed any other way, though it is more typical to expect that whoever has the upper-hand will exact whatever price satisfies the lust for revenge.

The deftness of the play’s plot is much to its advantage. This is not a realistic tale that strains credulity, but rather a fable about war and love, about hatred and desperate need. The four main characters have both a genuine specificity and a generic quality. The male roles are difficult due to the extremes the actors must evince. Hart’s Luis seems an aloof lover who does what he wants and expects his wife to accept his view; his eventual transformation seems not to take as much toll on him as it might. Sánchez’s Moisés is quite effective in his despair, but perhaps less so in his ultimatums. We have to believe in these characters as persons caught up in events beyond their control and then see them as figures of ultimate nemesis. It’s a striking situation, and an admirable effort.

The boxlike set makes the town seem a cell, an interesting comment on how all are imprisoned by past events they can’t overcome. Late in the play, a wall falls as if breaking through a façade and into the dark events that keep the town spellbound. The fascinating ensemble, with expressive choreography by Jake Ryan Lozano, creates the manner of a people struck to the heart by the story it must tell for the sake of its souls, the individual members wearing haunted looks that stay with us beyond the wrenching outcome.

Grim and trying, Seven Spots on the Sun’s sense of humanity is not without redemption, though it firmly presents the horrors of history as a curse upon the present.

 

Seven Spots on the Sun
By Martín Zimmerman
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Choreographer: Jake Ryan Lozano; Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Sound Designer and Composer: Andrew Rovner; Projection and Video Designer: Christopher Evans; Production Dramaturg: Evan Hill; Technical Director: Jenna Heo; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey

Cast: Brandon E. Burton, José Espinosa, Robert Lee Hart, Louisa Jacobson, Kineta Kunutu, JJ McGlone, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Jakeem Powell, Dario Ladani Sánchez, Sohina Sidhu, Adrienne Wells

 Yale School of Drama
December 13-18, 2018

This Sex Which is Not One

Review of Agreste (Drylands), Yale Cabaret

Brazilian author Newton Moreno’s Agreste (Drylands) features propulsive storytelling. As translated by Elizabeth Jackson and directed by Danilo Gambini at Yale Cabaret, the play, a narrative about two characters and a community, is told by three actors who narrate and mime events in a rhythmic round.  By turns lyrical, funny, surprising, tragic, Agreste (Drylands) achieves folkloric power. This is the kind of tale that would live on in the minds of locals, a defining act of bloodletting that makes us confront the fate that outsiders and outliers too often find in communities that fearfully maintain a baleful conformity.

The three actors—Abubaker Mohamed Ali, Rachel Kenney, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino—are abetted by the show’s careful design. They act inside what looks like a large sandbox to signify the drylands—or “agreste” region of Brazil—where two mostly inarticulate persons meet regularly at a fence that divides them, the way that wall divided Pyramus and Thisbe. Eventually, the woman, a fresh-faced innocent (most often enacted by Kenney), finds a hole through the fence. The hole is a widening spot of light, very effectively realized at key moments in the story. The two leave behind their own land and journey over the drylands to the ocean where they nearly lose themselves until a motherly woman takes them to a nearby community. There, the lovers build a shack and begin a life together.

Akubakr Mohamed Ali, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Rachel Kenney in Agreste (Drylands) at Yale Cabaret, directed by Danilo Gambini

Akubakr Mohamed Ali, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Rachel Kenney in Agreste (Drylands) at Yale Cabaret, directed by Danilo Gambini

This is a story of a fated love, a consuming passion that isn’t necessarily physical in its main emotion. The lovers gaze at one another and in that togetherness don’t need to do anything else or be anywhere else. Living together for decades, they are treated as husband and wife. They plan to marry officially and have finally gotten together all the trappings needed for the ceremony when the man (Abubakr Mohamed Ali) dies suddenly and unexpectedly.

Even more unexpected—but not unheard of by the parish priest (Ali) who comes to investigate the situation—is the fact that the old women of the community who come to help the widow lay out the body find no sign of “a willie” on the deceased. This scene, in which all three cast members enact a conclave of voices commenting on and joking about male genitalia, is both very funny and vicious. We see how, as beings of flesh, we are all vulnerable to a materialist reading. The widow tells how she and her husband coupled always in the dark, through a sheet, and that she has no knowledge of male anatomy. Her husband is, to her, the only man she has ever known and the loss of his dignity, as a naked body she has never seen, laid out on a table, is appalling enough. The loss of his status as a man and husband is devastating.

But that’s not devastating enough for this community. Thus the presence of the priest who chides her for “the commotion” she has created by letting the old gossips have access to her secret. Now there’s no way the priest can bury the body as a man, as he might’ve done otherwise. This aspect of the play is key to what unfolds. The authority here—the church—can turn a blind eye when it deems it best but it can’t risk its standing in the community by openly contradicting the ethos—such as it is—of the consensus. And the consensus is that the couple is an outrage and an abomination. It ends with the inevitability one finds in tales of the early Christians, a death for the sake of a persecuted love, an agape that, in promising paradise, asserts that its proper sphere is beyond this life on earth. Song—such as Paulino’s wholly captivating rendering of “His Eye is on the Sparrow”—helps this aspect of the tale find its emotional tone.

The cast performs with great precision the ins-and-outs of the round-robin style of presentation, each stepping forward to give shadings of feeling, whether through narrative or dialogue or singing. Kenney presents a young woman captured by what she believes to be male beauty, and Ali enacts well both the mystery of her husband and the sympathetic but ultimately callous priest. In her Cabaret debut, Paulino’s characterizations have a lightness that helps with the somewhat homespun elements of the tale while her room-filling a capella vocals express both rapture and agony. The songs chosen, like the southern U.S. drawl of the sheriff (Ali) and of the townsfolk at one point, take us out of the Brazilian setting, but that only makes the story more immediate to the deep social dysfunction of our own time and place in America.

With its ensemble presentation, the play is simply fascinating to watch, its story seeming to be spun from the air around us. Use of the material of the “sandbox” is effective too, and Yaara Bar’s always magical projections create here a key manifestation of beauty. The costumes, by April M. Hickman, are lovely, suggesting a desert culture with great aesthetic sense. We feel the culture’s presence behind the story, a collectivity that must somehow atone for the wrong done but which also—as with other stories of tragic endings at communal hands—finds a shared identity in the sacrifice of a scapegoat.

 

Agreste (Drylands)
Translated by Elizabeth Jackson
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Producer: Jaime F. Totti; Set Designers: Alexander McCargar and Sarah Karl; Costume Designers: April M. Hickman; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Emily Duncan Wilson; Projections Designer: Yaara Bar; Technical Director: Martin Montaner V.; Dramaturg: Maria Inês Marques; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington

Cast: Abubakr Mohamed Ali, Rachel Kenney, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino

Yale Cabaret
October 25-27, 2018