nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
September 17, 2005
One of the pleasures of attending a play about a history and culture other than one's own is to not only learn new things but to leave identifying with the story as part of a universal human condition. There's a lot to learn in Kirsten Childs's musical Miracle Brothers. However, even if you don't read the explanations listed in the program of what a Capoeira or a quilombo is you can follow the heart of this story that examines race, freedom, family, and adventure.
The play takes place in the present and in 17th century Bahia, a center of sugarcane production in Brazil. In Brazilian myth, a boto, or river dolphin, can become a beautiful man or woman and walk on land to seduce humans. At the beginning of Miracle Brothers, an ensemble of botos gather at the Rio dos Milagros (River Of Miracles) on the Night of Transformation. They playfully argue about what other creature they will transform themselves into. Rejecting the idea of rabbits, they decide to play "the humanity game." But as one of the dolphins warns, to go through the Portal to the Mortals, unless done the right way, means perhaps never being able to return.
The dolphins nevertheless decide to become human and shape-shift while singing "We're going to the human side-yip!" They elect three dolphins—Jeca, Maroto, and Pato—to stay behind to open the portal for the others when they return from their game. But something goes wrong and these three end up on the riverbank, lost in another century—a time of human slavery, colonialism, and sugarcane plantations. There, they see GreenEyes, one of their dolphin brothers in human form, now a slave. GreenEyes sees the dolphins but doesn't recognize them. Then, Fernando, another dolphin in human form, appears. He has been transformed into the son of the plantation owner. Fernando and GreenEyes are brothers. The plantation owner Lascivio is father to them both; their mothers are respectively Lascivio's wife, Isabel, and his slave mistress, Felicidade.
The two brothers have a secret friendship, despite their society's relegating them to unequal status. GreenEyes toils at backbreaking labor in the sugarcane fields under the eye of the evil overseer Rancor, and dreams of escape on the back of a dolphin. Fernando, a sickly youth, tries and fails to win his father's approval. He begs GreenEyes to teach him Capoeira, a martial-arts dance form and self-defense tool created by African slaves. In one of the strongest and funniest musical numbers of the show, "Tonight You Learn Capoeira," Fernando attempts GreenEyes's masterful moves, with only limited success. Mark Dendy's choreography, along with Jelon Viera's, who serves as Capoeira consultant, shines especially at this moment and helps to create the character and personality differences between the brothers.
Fernando, thinking he has mastered the form in one lesson, returns to his father's house to see Lascivio in a drunken rage threatening his mother Isabel. He attempts to fight his father with his newly learned moves and unwittingly kills him with the father's own sword. To save her son, Isabel tells Rancor that GreenEyes is the murderer. Abandoned by Fernando, who allows him to take the blame, GreenEyes escapes with the help of the dolphins in search of a quilombo, or a republic of escaped slaves, with Rancor in hot pursuit.
Fernando, overcome with guilt, runs away as well, to follow his brother and seek forgiveness. On their separate adventures, GreenEyes is saved from bandeirantes (mercenaries hired to bring back runaway slaves) by a pirate named Juan, who turns out to be a woman—the daughter of a wealthy Spanish nobleman. She has escaped her fate of a forced marriage and disguised herself as a man in order to have adventures. (As the dolphins sing, "Because she'd rather die in battle / Than be somebody's chattel.") Fernando encounters a runaway slave girl named Ginga who is trying to get to Palmeres, the most famous quilombo of all. She is poised to cut him down with her machete but is surprised that he knows Capoiera and assumes he is a black man, albeit an extremely light-skinned one.
Though the issues of the play trade in adult themes, Miracle Brothers will appeal to children as well. Director Tina Landau has swashbuckling pirates swing from ropes in the rafters towards the audience, and the trio of singing and dancing dolphins are Disneylike and seem to serve the same function as Cinderella's mice. The style almost seems too cute. Tyler Maynard as Fernando does a lot of "takes" for the audience and sets up his jokes with great deliberation. Clifton Oliver as GreenEyes, while subtler in his portrayal of a young man trying to do the right thing in the face of terrible circumstances, still succumbs to making sure the audience gets a joke or a serious moment. The book—with jokes like "I don't have a clue" "You can say that again." "I don't have a clue!"—seems to make such acting choices inevitable. But then, the Captain of the pirate ship, Henrique, played by Devin Richards, makes his entrance. He does not comment on his actions but fully gives into the melodrama of being a heartsick pirate with his glorious baritone. Another standout is Nicole Leach as Ginga; a self-professed "black girl with a bad attitude and a big machete." Her portrayal appropriately fits the style but is also real and believable.
Although only three musicians are listed in the program, they create enough joyful Brazilian music on stage to make one think there is a full band behind the curtain. The music, combined with a luscious set by G.W. Mercier of rainforest greens and twinkling stars on the theatre's ceiling, completes the atmosphere and transports the audience into this adventure story of transformation.