Santa Fe theater companies are always thinking outside the box when it comes to the physical stuff onstage. Of course, our town really only has a few traditional proscenium stages, and black boxes demand creativity in set construction; accordingly, Santa Fe's designers, directors and carpenters are never afraid to break rules. Think a stage full of sand (we're looking at you, Atacama) or nothing but lights and sound to convey a whole world (Constellations pulled that off).
Two shows currently up break molds in unique ways: We Are Hispanic, American Women … Okay? at Teatro Paraguas is a full sensory experience, and The Big Heartless at Warehouse 21 downright dazzles with creative use of non-traditional materials.
Walk in to Paraguas for a performance of WAHAWO and your first thought is likely, "Oh, the cast must have had a potluck before the show." I headed in to the theater and director Alix Hudson chose a seat next to me. I commented on the delicious smell, and she pointed to the crockpots onstage in character Ramona's kitchen. "Beans and chile," she said with a smile. "She's also going to make tortillas."
WAHAWO, written by New Mexico playwright Patricia Crespin and first staged at Paraguas a decade ago, is a sweet little play about an everyday New Mexican family—well, the women of that family, anyway. All its action revolves around a kitchen and a dining table, reclaiming the notion of women in the kitchen; no longer a place of servitude, it's a place of bonding, subversion, connection and perhaps high drama. Husbands, lovers, brothers, fathers and sons, while ever-present in conversation, are nowhere to be seen as we follow sisters Marissa and Antonia (Paola Vengoechea Martini and Jeni Nelson, respectively), mother Ramona (JoJo Sena de Tarnoff), grandmother Nanita (Lilia Urrutia) and Marissa's daughter Juanita (Shaunti Sitonik) in their discussions of religion, romance and independence.
While the action sometimes dragged with mismatched energy, and the script dipped occasionally into heavy-handed dialogue (in particular, talk of religion clubbed us over the head), the actresses' clear passion and dedication and Hudson's directorial choice to use real food buoyed the production. The food thing sounds small, but isn't at all. Truly, no matter how good an actor thinks they are at miming, the audience can always tell when a cup is actually empty. Always. And while eating onstage is most actors' nightmare (I personally have not eaten a sugar cookie since having to eat about five per night in December 2015), it really does put the viewer firmly in the world of the play when there's an actual meal consumed.
When Ramona brewed coffee, soon the sweet smell was wafting through the house. And when the actors poured it, there was steam rising from the mugs. Ramona fixes herself a bowl of frijoles; Nanita pours herself plenty of tequila, and we watch the bottle drain as the action progresses. Where we otherwise may have drifted off into a lack of investment, watching flour fly around the stage was a surprisingly effective anchor in the one-act presentation.
For a very different take on what a set can do (and also featuring actors eating onstage—hallelujah!), director Lynn Goodwin presents The Big Heartless at Warehouse 21, written by local playwright Dale Dunn. Goodwin and Just Say It Productions, also the brains behind the aforementioned bare- stage Constellations, this time opt to go all-out by turning W21's black box into a Montana wilderness with tree trunks, stumps, burlap netting, the interiors of two cabins—and perhaps most impressive, a huge screen onto which story aides are projected.
The play runs in excess of two hours, but the story flies by effortlessly as we watch reclusive wildlife manager Mac (a heroic Matt Sanford) navigate his neighbors (jaunty grandparents played by Jennifer Graves and Dan Friedman, and their granddaughter Jean, the highly capable Tulah Dillman-Stanford). When Mac's nephew Cliff (John Helfrich) and his friend Monsoon (Lucy Shattuck) show up after breaking out of their prison-like reform school, things go awry, to put it mildly. While the characters essentially remain isolated and continue on their own destined trajectories, that all of their tragedies occur at once makes for an explosive story.
The three students of the show (Dillman-Stanford, Helfrich and Shattuck) are all students at the New Mexico School for the Arts, and frankly, this show is worth it just for their performances, further cementing that institution's place as a wellspring of education. Particularly notable here is Helfrich's complex performance, during which he eats an apple faster than we thought physically possible.
Set designer Jay Bush, media designer Dylan McLaughlin and sound designer Dan Piburn each deserve some kind of award. I don't even know what kind. Something really good, though. Whereas WAHAWO's set helped flesh out the audience in a script that sometimes meandered, the visual presentation of The Big Heartless grounds a complicated story by Dunn that needs to change location and mood in seconds. How do you show that a character is playing the Sims? With sound effects and a nebulous computer screen projection. How can the creepiness of headlights approaching a remote cabin come through in a theater in the middle of a city? You guessed it—projection. After the play reaches its chaotic climax and we're suddenly in the enveloping silence of a snowy mountainscape, how can we feel that tenuous peace? I don't have to say it again.
Kudos to Heartless and WAHAWO for visually and environmentally engaging shows. Set designers, take note, and adventurous directors, please just let your actors eat for real. Your audience will thank you.