New Rep on the Block

Like the veteran gambler who frequents the racetrack or the casino in the hope of this time hitting it big, seasoned theatergoers return to the theater faithfully anticipating a win. And every once in a while, among the duds, the disappointments, and the well-intended productions -- even among the energetic, the very good, and the excellent shows -- there is an evening that transcends all others. The New World Rep Company's rendition of Brian Friel's magnificent Faith Healer provides one of those exceptional, not-to-be-missed evenings, and marks an auspicious beginning for New World Rep, a professional company that debuted in downtown Miami three weeks ago. (The drama plays in repertory through this weekend with Jose Rivera's Marisol, reviewed below.)

Brian Friel, one of Ireland's premier dramatists, built a repertoire over the past 30 years that includes Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Translations, and the Tony Award-winning Dancing at Lughnasa. Sharing the themes of communication, memory, identity, and exile with his other plays, Faith Healer, written in 1979, also explores the ordeal of being an artist blessed with a talent that is both an inspiration and an affliction.

The drama consists of four monologues delivered by three characters, none of whom appear on stage at the same time. This deceptively simple structure allows Frank, an itinerant healer who is part con man-part miracle worker, to speak first, followed by his wife, Grace, his manager, Teddy, and then Frank again. In rich, anecdotal language that shifts seamlessly from memory to self-delusion to confession, each monologue offers different recollections of the same events during the trio's twenty-year relationship. Traveling the back roads of Scotland and Wales in a van, they bring one-night "performances" of Frank's healing powers A which sometimes work for him but just as often fail him A to the blind, the crippled, the rejected, and the maimed. By the final monologue, an exquisitely textured tableau of a complex life together emerges -- a life, as Frank describes it, "always balanced somewhere between the absurd and the momentous."

I was not surprised to read in the program that Friel published short stories early in his career. Combining the poetry and potency of Celtic names, keenly observed details about people and places, and numerous other details left to the imagination, Friel's writing in Faith Healer taps into the Irish flair for storytelling while achieving what great fiction does best -- disclosing its characters' inner lives. Yet no one would mistake the play for prose. Friel undeniably has conceived the work for the stage, and reaches dramatic heights through distinct voices and a purposefully crafted layering of information. Patrice Bailey honors the playwright's haunting and poignant script with cautiously paced direction that allows the mesmerizing language and the characters' pain to resonate fully. And she elicits stirring, memorable performances from each actor.

As Grace, Cynthia Caquelin begins a bit on the self-consciously earnest side, and her alleged Irish accent, wavering between uneven and nonexistent, proves initially distracting. But the characterization builds until Caquelin the actress fades, and the enigmatic, contradictory Grace appears -- fiercely intelligent, dependent, tenacious, rebellious, ironic, devoted -- to close act one on a stunning emotional note. David Kwiat balances comedy, compassion, and integrity in his heartbreaking portrayal of the all-forgiving manager-servant Teddy, who sees Grace and Frank's relationship more clearly than the couple itself does, even as he grapples with his own feelings for each of them. And Andrew Noble delivers a nothing-short-of-remarkable performance as Frank. Although the faith healer finds himself burdened by a gift he neither understands nor seems able to control, Noble the actor is in full possession of his powers, infusing his character with equal measures of cruelty, selfishness, self-pity, pain, and charm.

While Jeff Quinn's sparse set -- consisting of a banner, a platform, and several chairs -- and subdued yet evocative lighting evoke lonely rural byways and shabby bed-sitters, a mere review cannot begin to transmit the power of Friel's language in a live setting. Do not miss this chance to see an excellent production of this playwright's fine work.

On the other side of the world from Faith Healer's small-town Britain, New York City pulses as a war-torn battlefield, a place where disaffected angels have descended from Heaven in order to lead a rebellion against God. Termed by some critics as magical-realist, Puerto Rican-born Jose Rivera's Marisol is more accurately described as an apocalyptic passion play, at the center of which lies the fall, the suffering, and the re-education of the title character. Marisol Perez (Micha Espinosa), a Puerto Rican-born copy editor, aspires to a form of the American dream by donning trench coat and high heels every morning and riding the subway from the run-down South Bronx to a steady job in Manhattan. Protected partially by a veneer of job security and partially by the efforts of a guardian angel, Marisol has steered clear of New York's street culture -- the menagerie of homeless people, psychotics, and bullies whose paths most city dwellers attempt to avoid. On the eve of the heavenly rebellion, however, Marisol's guardian angel (James Samuel Randolph) visits to say he's withdrawing his talismanic powers because he's needed to fight the good fight -- from now on, Marisol must make it on her own. By the next morning the violence simmering just below the city's surface starts to erupt, and Marisol's life on the street begins.

Although it operates as something of a parody of Tony Kushner's Angels in America and something of a catholicized take on the lawless urban landscape portrayed in the Ridley Scott movie Blade Runner, Rivera's violent vision of absurdist modern life remains very much his own. Feminism, outrage at the conditions under which poor people live, a critique of yuppie culture, and the condemnation of immigrant assimilation -- all of these elements inform his attempts to make sense of the senselessness we live with each day. Intriguing, unnerving, and wickedly ironic at its best moments, this ambitious drama is illuminated by director Jorge Guerra's salient staging and some excellent performances. But Rivera's kitchen-sink approach blurs his play's focus. He falls prey to the chaos he imagines, and lets go of the narrative reins. The result A an unwieldy act two, formless despite Guerra's discerning direction, and filled with hysterical speeches that obscure Rivera's language and his intent, if one exists.

Ultimately the play left me with mere impressions rather than conveying a coherent whole (not to be confused with a logical whole A good drama need not be logical, or realistic, but it does need to have a semblance of shape). And those impressions merit mentioning: Marisol and a young woman (Karin Zoeller) sitting side by side on regular chairs in the play's opening scene, eliciting the claustrophobia and spastic jerking of a New York subway ride; the guardian angel's visit to Marisol, a tightly choreographed episode passionately enacted by Randolph and Espinosa, which has the feel of a fever dream; Cynthia Caquelin (Faith Healer's Grace) as a society matron on a rampage, calling street people credit risks; David Kwiat, in a 180-degree turn from his role in Faith Healer, as Lenny, whose sinister mania conjured for me the perverse image of Dustin Hoffman's autistic Rain Man character on steroids; and a moving, revelatory performance by Chaz Mena as the Man With Scar Tissue, a homeless person burned by skinheads. Mena brings remarkable humanity to this character, who could be the invisible, disenfranchised street person many of us pass daily.

Guerra, New World Rep Company's artistic director, made an inspired decision in pairing the challenging Marisol with the far more subtle Faith Healer for the company's debut. The cultural backgrounds of the dramas contrast cleverly; the unique demands of each production showcase the company's formidable range of talent; casting some of the same actors in each show highlights that range even further. New World Rep promises to be an awesome addition to South Florida's professional theater scene.

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