Blind Mouth Singing
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 17, 2007
Authentic magic happens only rarely in the theatre. I'm not talking about sleight-of-hand—card tricks or turning a handkerchief into a bird or whatever; I'm talking about those rare wonderful moments when we see one thing on stage with our eyes, but our hearts tell us we're seeing something entirely different. The National Asian American Theatre Company's production of Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas's Blind Mouth Singing is filled with such moments of magic.
A boy, probably a teenager, rushes out of his house to look down a well; his best friend lives at its bottom. But what we see, on Zachary Zirlin's extraordinary set, is no well at all; we see a shallow rectangular pool of water, no more than 3 or 4 inches deep, running straight down the middle of the stage. The first boy, Reiderico, stands behind the pool; his friend, Lucero, stands at the other end, his back to us. But we understand instantly what's going on: we "see" the well, even though there's no well in sight. (And we accept that two young adult actors, Jon Norman Schneider and Alexis Camins, are boys of perhaps 16.)
Director Ruben Polendo makes wizardly transformations before our eyes just like this one throughout Blind Mouth Singing, finding the perfect visual/physical vocabulary to realize Cortiñas's magic-realism-inflected script. Reiderico's difficult, domineering mother (brilliantly portrayed by NAATCO Artistic Producing Director Mia Katigbak) is plucking and killing chickens in one scene; all we see is simply a profusion of colorful feathers, as if a boa had exploded. When the Mother and her sister, Bolivia, are preparing for an imminent storm, they nail boards over the windows of their house; it looks to us as though they're nailing wooden slats to the floor, but we know exactly what they're doing. Kudos to Polendo and a visionary design team—Kate Ashton (lighting), Candida K. Nichols (costumes), Jane Shaw (sound), and the aforementioned Zirlin—for creating one of the most imaginative, stimulating environments for a play that I've encountered in quite some time.
Oh, and I haven't yet mentioned Adam Cochran, an actor and musician who provides live percussion, music, and foley effects throughout the show. His work is invaluable, conjuring, for example, a hurricane with just his versatile vocalizations and a small sheet of pliable metal.
I should tell you something about the story. It's a coming-of-age tale, about this young man Reiderico who is trying to find his way out of his mother's stifling house and into a world he's never really seen. He lives with his mother, aunt, and older brother Gordi, in a remote village. His mother, embittered by the never-quite-explained departure of his father, keeps the family afloat; though it is his aunt Bolivia who is currently the major breadwinner, working (unbeknownst to Mother) as a caregiver to syphilis patients in an open-air market. Gordi picks on Reiderico relentlessly. Reiderico relies on his secret friend Lucero to cope with his constricted existence...until one day Lucero gets the idea to switch places with Reiderico. And then everything changes.
As you can tell, Cortiñas's plotting is as wildly off-kilter and off-the-wall as Polendo's staging; the whole experience of Blind Mouth Singing is one of being constantly surprised and engaged as unexpected and often illogical events unfold before you and, somehow, feel both inevitable and commonsensical. That's how vividly these artists create and realize the world of their story. And despite the ineffable nature of what happens here, we come to care for Reiderico and his family; the end of the piece is effectively moving.
Katigbak, Schneider, and Camins are joined by Orville Mendoza, who is fine as the insufferable Gordi, and Sue Jean Kim, who is excellent as Aunt Bolivia. Their work proves the efficacy of NAATCO's newest initiative, inaugurated with this piece, of presenting new plays not specifically by, for, or about the Asian American experience, but realized with an all-Asian-American cast. From such diversity springs something essential and universal. Blind Mouth Singing is a treat for the theatre-goer who seeks something more challenging and nourishing than traditional drama; if that's you, I wholeheartedly recommend it.