nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
August 21, 2011
Walking into MassBliss Productions’ Brave Ducks, one passes what appears to be a drunk Confederate soldier at the door to The Living Theatre. Then, after a woman in a Red Cross uniform takes your ticket, a man with a bright headlamp guides you into the dim space saying something along the lines of “Welcome to the shelter. It’s been a long journey I know.” As you enter, the stage is littered with debris, including a sign pointing down and reading “Punto de Encuentro,” or “Meeting Point.” There is a man in the space. A trombone is heard approaching from outside the theater, gradually getting louder until the trombonist walks on stage, the lights shift, and the play begins. It is all very atmospheric, but, like much of what follows, it is not much else.
The play seems to take place somewhere in the American South, during the aftermath of a Katrina-like disaster, but no concrete specifics are offered. It follows the journey of Eugenio, Michelle, and Milton (the drunk at the theater door, who turns out to be an employee of what is referred to only—and with inexplicable reverence—as Animal Control) as they search the detritus for Michelle’s dog and Eugenio’s daughter, Alma. This is apparently playwright Andrew Belcher’s first script, and he should be applauded for his ambition. Ducks attempts to tackle some big, capital-“I” Ideas, but Belcher doesn’t quite succeed in illuminating what those ideas are exactly. In a program note, the dramaturg, Meropi Peponides, writes that the play is “about limits…reaching those limits and then being pushed past them and being forced to examine who you are when the boundaries of reality have exploded.” Interesting, but this doesn’t wind up being supported by the play that we’re given.
Belcher seems to fall headlong into the trap of believing that his characters and story have Meaning and Resonance and Weight simply because they say they do. They say things like, “feels like my mind has been wiped clean,” “Ain’t no God here!” and “my soul is my own to let go,” but don’t earn such grand statements. Rather than conveying wisdom, as I imagine Belcher intends, dialogue like this feels forced, flat and empty. This, coupled with the fact that most scenes seem to echo each other by too often repeating Eugenio’s or Michelle’s trope of “I need to find my daughter” or “I need to find my dog,” leads it all to become a bit one-note. Furthermore, there is some pretty heavy-handed imagery at play. The most blatant of these is Eugenio’s daughter, Alma, who periodically wanders through scenes singing in Spanish either wrapped in an American flag or cradling one in her arms like a baby. From the little she has been asked to do, Rocío López, who plays Alma, seems genuinely talented, and I kept wishing she had been asked to do more than simply play a symbol.
Not to say that Belcher is without talent. Some of the writing displays a nice sense of fun and inventiveness, which is what makes the presence of tired symbolism and some two-dimensional archetypal characters somewhat frustrating. There is evidence of this in Mother Duck, who gives the play its title and is a kind of omnipotent cousin of Lily Tomlin’s bag lady in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, wandering in and out of the play’s action in various guises, principally in a housecoat and oxygen tank pushing a shopping cart (her “Duck Mobile”). As played by Andrea A. McCullough, Mother Duck breathes fresh air into the script whenever she appears, including during a particularly joyous tap solo. In his first few scenes with Eugenio and Michelle, Milton has a word play all his own, making pronouncements such as his need to “secure the parameter.” This word play unfortunately falls by the wayside as the play progresses, but Belcher would be well-served to imbue future characters with that kind of specificity and find ways to sustain it.
Despite the script’s shortcomings, director Simón Adinia Hanukai and the cast display some fine work. Hanukai creates a real sense of place, utilizing very simple staging techniques to indicate the play’s numerous locations, even if we never learn where that place is exactly. Sound designer Toby Jaguar Algya, composer Dan Teicher, and musician Freddy Gonzalez add some wonderful texture by creating a soundscape using only a bass guitar and a pair of drumsticks put to excellent and varied use. Among the performers, there are several standouts. Ito Aghayere throws her heart into Michelle and sells all of her moments with genuine emotion and depth. Likewise, McCullough brings a sprightliness and sly devilishness to Mother Duck. Both women are endlessly watchable.
In the end, yes, the play has problems. That said, what it lacks in structure, it makes up for in spirit and energy. Successful or no, Belcher, Hanukai, and MassBliss have chosen to engage full-throttle with the FringeNYC’s challenge to artists. Take risks. Try something bold. They’ve certainly done that. And, to be honest, I’ve left one bit of information out. The afternoon I saw the show, the house was packed. And, as anyone who’s been around the Fringe knows, that is no small feat.