When the Art Comes to Life
By Guest Staff Reviewer Eleanor Svaton. Eleanor teaches English classes, and has been observing, creating, and writing about theatre in Hawai‘i for over a decade.
Tiles and tradition, portraits and appropriation, oppression, ambition, religion and collision.... With the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, debut director Ron Heller takes on the staging of a conflict that’s been brewing for centuries—nay, millennia—culminating in a few brief exchanges set in a stylish arts-and-chrome decor New York City apartment, replete with expensive scotch, important books, and five captivating characters on display, each peeling, tearing, and shredding layers from one another in front of your very eyes. Heller presents this drama with straightforward realism, simple yet suggestive blocking, and powerful performances. At a well-paced 90 minutes without intermission, Disgraced offers Honolulu a captivating and intellectually stimulating story well worth a visit to the Dole Cannery, where the small, personal Brad Powell Theatre brings audiences so close to the action you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a place you really don’t belong... you should go, it’s rude to watch... but you can’t, after all, look away.
The play centers on Emily and Amir, Courtney Coston and Troy M. Apostol, respectively, a married couple of mixed faith... They have exchanges with another couple, Jory and Isaac (Victoria Brown-Wilson and Max Holtz), whose lives are entangled with theirs through several social and professional ties. Rounding out the cast of characters is Noah Faumuina as Amir’s nephew, Abe... or at least that’s what he calls himself for a while. Identity in Abe and Amir’s family, turns out to be a deep-seated struggle. Through a series of small events, urgings, choices, negotiations and manipulations, the audience watches what happens when people of alternative backgrounds, beliefs, and heritage get close to each other, as such people inevitably do in a place like New York, or Honolulu, for that matter. Disgraced puts it all on the dinner table, and in the course of one evening, the characters discuss religion and art, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and 9/11, faith and pride and hate and love, delving deep into the dark soul of some of the most difficult conversations of our time, and without offering platitudes or easy solutions. The characters’ personal ambitions are set against the backdrop of the greater political implications of the war on terror and the permeation of Islamophobia into the fabric of American society.
Art is used as a conduit and a metaphor in the play. A famous painting, the Portrait of Juan de Pareja, by 17th-century Spanish artist Diego Velazquez, fascinates Emily enough that she decides to recreate it with her husband as the subject. The original depicts a Moorish slave painted by his European master. The painting, to Emily, shows the dignity of the subject, which she wants to bestow also on her beloved husband. The question one might ask is whether or not Velazquez or Emily are truly honoring the subjects of their work, or merely objectifying them into the image in which the artist desires them to be seen. As the audience gazes in on this story, the portrait comes to life, and in all the complexity of human interaction, motivation, and semiconscious prejudices, the results are anything but dignified. Are the portraits by Velasquez and Emily, the still-lifes portraying such dignity, an honor or a lie?
The five actors each bring strong qualities to their performances, handling the relationships and content admirably. Young Faumuina is highly compelling in the role of Abe, a teen struggling to become a good man, looking for a role model, a path of strength. Apostol as Amir powers through a demanding performance with energy and nuance, a master of his craft. Coston’s straight-forward portrayal of Emily makes her character’s eventual revelations all the more genuine and disturbing as the story unravels. Brown-Wilson and Holtz support the ensemble with solid character work by each.
The direction by Ron Heller uses the small box and side area intelligently. A rise of perhaps six inches running halfway between the front and back of the space provides a simple-yet-effective level that Heller makes strong symbolic choices with. I asked him what part of the blocking he found most challenging, and he told me it was the final scene between Amir and Emily, which they tried in countless configurations until he found one he was comfortable with. Directing a play such as this, written with layers of meaning and abounding in imagery, complexity, and metaphor, invites artistic choices that can heighten, reinforce, parallel, and punctuate the dialogue and the structure of the piece. There wasn’t anything about the direction that stood out as brilliantly inspired, and there were a few awkwardnesses, such as the dinner-table blocking in the main scene and some of the physicality between the main characters. Yet the pacing was natural and fluid, with good use of both quiet moments and galloping dialogue. All in all, I’ll be looking forward to his sophomore effort after seeing this affecting piece of unassuming theatre.
The preview audience was enthralled. The set (Andy Alvarado), lighting (Thomas Tochiki), sound (Heller), and costume (Carlynn Wolfe) designs come together seamlessly to create the world of Disgraced, a familiar world, where good people face challenges and bias and where the truth can be terrifying, where fairness and justice aren’t necessarily for all. Where the past places demands on the present, and where the people you know and love can shock and hurt in ways once believed impossible.
What does it cost to have pride in your history, your family, your religion, your heritage? What does it mean to be American? What does it take to live in a world where you are the foreigner, no matter where you were born? What right does an outsider have to presume knowledge about that which is not theirs? Step into the theatre, pull back the curtain, and gaze behind the facade—find out what happens when the dignified portraits come to life.
One fellow audience member, who said she doesn’t see all that much theatre, told me she was disappointed at the end, not because it was a bad ending, but simply because it was over. “When’s season two?” she asked. “I want to know what happens to these people.”
After spending about a thousand words reviewing this play, I have to finally say, the praise doesn’t get much higher than that.