nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
September 8, 2010
An ominous dining table draped in a white cloth sits on a dark stage. Thick black walls loom from either side. Tree branches float overhead and the back walls are distant mirrors, vaguely reflecting what they see. This is where underneathmybed by Florencia Lozano begins. Set in 1982, this is a semi-autobiographical tale of family, relationships, growth, self-loathing, and politics.
The play follows a family of immigrants from Argentina who narrowly escaped the beginning of The Dirty War, a seven-year massacre sponsored by the Argentinean government that resulted in the capture, torture, and murder of more than 20,000 of its own citizens.
We are led by 13-year-old Daisy, played nearly flawlessly by Vanessa Aspillaga. The youngest of three sisters, she is suffering from an anxiety disorder that seems to stem directly from the horror stories she is told by her father about the way people are being mistreated in his homeland. She is haunted by a young torture victim, S, played by a ghostly Marina Pulido. Daisy is also coming upon puberty and all the priceless wonders that lie therein. We watch as she tortures herself from within, hating herself, her body, her thoughts and shouldering the constant family dysfunction the way only a sensitive teenage girl can. This directly reflects the torture that she imagines S has been experiencing as a victim of the war. She receives much love but little sympathy from her family, who are typically dysfunctional, arguing frequently, mostly in Spanish, an element that all three sisters tend to reject in their own personal ways. All of this isolates Daisy and lets her neurosis grow stronger. Aspillaga handles the many layers of what Daisy is experiencing with fearless purity, humor, and grace. She is never afraid to look ugly and that makes her so beautiful.
underneathmybed is director Pedro Pascal's directorial debut and he seems ready to prove himself. I have always found that the most perfectly directed plays are those where I can forget there was a director at all. The opposite is true of this production. Pascal has used as many elements as possible to tell this story and, sadly, it almost takes away from its strength. There are so many symbols, ideas, levels, technical statements, and even genres (the show could be called a romantic-family-coming of age-horror-drama-comic-tragedy) put on stage that it is difficult to absorb a lot of what is there. The world of the play is also a little muddled. For example, there is a sort of narrator that was not originally included in the script, Kaspar, played with stoic resonance by Matthew Dellapina. I say "sort of" because he essentially recites stage directions, i.e., movements, sound cues, etc., blurring the lines of the fourth wall which is struck down and rebuilt multiple times throughout the show. What I found confusing was that this was only the case sometimes, creating inconsistencies that became distracting and unclear. I wondered if the reason this "narrator" element seems out of place is because it wasn't originally intended by the playwright.
Still, the content is there and Pascal has drawn beautiful performances from each member of the ensemble. It is a strong ensemble show which is simply wrought with talent. The sisterly dynamic is performed well by Aspillaga as well as Vivia Font as the eldest sister, Paola. Audrey Esparza steals every scene she's in as Josefina, the middle child. All the characters are wonderfully fleshed out and complement one another beautifully with their flaws, humanity, and extreme love for one another. Even smaller roles stand out. Yetta Gottesman as the hopelessly misplaced dinner guest, Jean, is phenomenal with amazing comic timing presence.
Lozano has written something unlike any play I've ever seen and I believe that with some adjustments to the many production elements this production could work 100%. It is a complicated piece that brings to light a historical event about which many Americans are completely unaware while simultaneously examining the way young women, as they begin to leave childhood behind, frequently split into different people—a socially acceptable identity that is easy to handle and a very messy, sad, and insecure identity that causes problems. This production takes a substantial amount of post-show digestion and the two-hour run time simply flies by, so I encourage you to keep your eyes peeled throughout the performance. It moves quickly, saying a lot and what this show is telling us is well worth our attention.