Review of Thunder Above, Deeps Below, Yale Cabaret
A. Rey Pamatmat’s Thunder Above, Deeps Below plays in some ways like a fairy tale, but what the playwright has in mind, given the title’s reference to Pericles, are the plays, often called “romances,” that Shakespeare wrote later in his career. The possibility of tragedy is present, but a certain saving grace, often beyond the bounds of the merely human, carries the day.
In Pamatmat’s play, the tragic dimension comes from the hand-to-mouth life on the streets of an unlikely trio: Teresa (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), sort of the den-mother of the bunch, a Filipina who still mourns the mixed-race child her parents wouldn’t allow her to have; Hector (Ricardo Dávila), a Puerto Rican youth who sells sexual favors on the street and who has become the obsession of Locke, (Jason Land), a married black man; and Gil (Bianca Castro), a transexual who wants to trade her male equipment for female. Together, they’re trying to raise the money for three bus tickets to California, to escape the encroaching cold of another Chicago winter. They hang out near, and sometimes take shelter in, a coffee shop where Marisol (Patricia Fa’asua) waits tables and lends a helping hand when she can. A further device, where Shakespearean romance comes into view, poses James Udom as Perry, a figure from Teresa’s past who seeks his Perdita, so to speak, and imagery of a ghostly boatman (Fa’asua), and, for Gil, the hope that one day her prince will come.
In the Cab production, the play's tone can be hard to pinpoint. That might be deliberate, but for the romance elements to surprise us, the hard scrabble elements have to be convincing. The street characters here are all easily likeable, and that very quality makes their desperation feel a bit like an after-school special about “choices.” The bonds these three feel for each other are best perceived under duress, as in the final show-down in the coffee shop, when Marisol confronts Hector with his past. Other scenes of struggle, such as the love-hate relations between Hector and Locke, are the most vivid aspects of the drama. Also on the plus side is Gil’s big number, providing show-stopping charisma that earns her either an admirer or a stalker (Armando Huipe) whose intentions create further drama.
Director Sebastian Arboleda, working with non-actors in some key roles, makes the most of the play’s potential for open staging. The cast move easily between imagined street, imagined lakeside, imagined coffee shop, imagined swanky apartment; the main set element, a large, transparent curtain at the back, is used effectively to set off some incidents from the immediate action. One also has the sense that, to make this full-length play fit a Cab show’s running time, certain cuts have perhaps thinned-out elements of characterization that might help us inhabit this world more fully. Pamatmat’s text can be rather lyrical, and that quality needs a certain pacing to be developed fully.
A compelling element here is that the production combines impersonation and authenticity. Dávila, always a very capable actor, makes us see Hector as the changeable teen he is, while Castro is not an actor playing a transgender character—she is herself a trans performer and becomes Gil for the play’s purposes. Her role asks her to be acutely discerning, sympathetic, quick-witted, and dreamy, by turns. It’s a tall order. As Teresa, McKenzie frowns and scowls like a harried mother of wayward children, though her pay-off scene at the end is conveyed with winning joy.
A complicated stab at giving us a sense of lives lived on the edge, while also buttressing such lives with deliberate romance elements, Thunder Above, Deeps Below is best at registering the mystery of friendship.
Thunder Above, Deeps Below
By A. Rey Pamatmat
Directed by Sebastian Arboleda
Assistant Director: Jamie Farkas; Dramaturg: Amauta Marston-Firmino; Set Designer: Riw Rakklulchon; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Green; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Fight Choreographer: Jonathan Higginbotham; Technical Director: Matt Davis; Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson; Producer: Trent Anderson
Cast: Bianca Castro, Patricia Fa’asua, Jason Land, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Armando Huipe, Ricardo Dávila, James Udom
November 3-5, 2016