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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Review- Strangers (Shalimar Theatre Co)

The Fab Marquee review by Karen Tortora-Lee.

Living in New York you can't help but run across a few green-card marriages in your life; the first time I ever met a couple who were trying to pull one over on the government they were happily living together as roommates and dating whom ever they chose with each other's blessing. It was a fine arrangement for both of them; he got to stay in the country and she got the benefit of the enormous wads of cash he threw her way. She also got to flash a Liz Taylor sized engagement ring around. I also see couples who meet, date, fall in love, and just get married a little sooner than expected before one of them gets deported. They really do love each other, they're just starting the gig in fast-forward.

Joey Williamson (Bob) | photo credit: Yi Zhao

Somewhere in between these extremes lies the main charters of Strangers (written by Nastaran Ahmadi and directed by Shoshona Currier): Ella (Jen Taher) and Stefan (Daniel Popa) who are on different pages when it comes to why they got married. Ella assumes it was for love, Stefan's every move tells you it was for convenience. Everyone else assumes it's a lot easier to pull off than it actually is.

We meet Ella and Stefan on the cusp of their wedding party...we find out soon enough (as Ella is shoving one wedding cake sample after another into her mouth in base desperation) that the couple has actually been married for a number of years now. Whatever quick, down and dirty way it was done originally seems fine for Stefan, but Ella's every word, facial expression and action implies that no matter what, she is just not going to feel married without that party, that declaration of love, that dress, those flowers, and that musical interlude. "I want everyone to know how happy we are ..." she whines, and she's about as convincing as that doctor who mumbles "this won't hurt" before jabbing a needle into your arm.`

Over on the other side of town Bob (Joey Williamson) is floundering amidst his tissues, he's sick but also sick and tired. He's watching The Big Sleep with Bogart and Bacall (and so are we, the movie is projected on screens hung to the left and right of the performance space) and singing a disheartened song about the "movie of his life"...the scene itself is reminiscent of a mini-Rent. Bob is obviously agitated over something; a voice mail left from Stefan could be a clue...whatever it is, it leaves Bob desperate enough to call a random operator (Franny Silverman) who just happens to be the lovelorn secretary to Dan (Brad Love)...Stefan's immigration lawyer. Can a man get deported for leaving his wife, if he’s foreign? he asks. Hold on, what's this? Stefan's not in love with Ella? I had no idea! And how juicy: Everyone knows everyone without knowing that they know everyone! Very Lost.

Daniel Popa (Stefan) & Jen Taher (Ella)
photo credit: Yi Zhao

Bob and Operator (she's got no name of her own) burn through the lines, pouring out their hearts the way only true anonymous voices on the phone line can ... they both reveal themselves to be sad sacks, she's being used by her boss for cheap thrills, and Bob seems to be depressed about everything including the state of the world.

Meanwhile Ella takes respite in the park where she meets a beautiful, carefree Brazilian woman (Kim Gainer)...also nameless. Ella's having such a breakdown that she's literally reaching out to anything or anyone that appears steadier than herself...she begs the Brazilian woman to sing at her wedding party. For cash. A lot of cash. It's as if Ella feels she can't get anyone to go along with her unless she's paying them, Stefan included. At $700 the woman agrees.

Little by little the show keeps unfolding along these lines. Secrets and connections are revealed, deals are brokered, plans are hatched. It all goes along pretty expectedly until, for some strange reason, it becomes a fractured play...and I don't just mean a lot of story lines are going on at once. I mean that all of a sudden a lot of different plays start happening at once. Where just moments before we had people who were fond of singing we now have full blown (or as full blown as can be in such a small venue) musical numbers, replete with verses that go on and on and a full dance number that the cast performs earnestly, if a bit awkwardly. I had to check my program to make sure I hadn't stumbled into a green-card version of A (Tiny) Chorus Line.

Things take an even odder twist when Operator suddenly turns into Femme Fatale (sometimes referred to as Lily). Had I missed a dream sequence? Was this The Big Sleep come to life? Did Operator get pulled into the movie? I can't say with any certainty what exactly happened. Which ever it may be, we're now left with this fractured plot, one moment watching Ella and Stefan prepare (one eagerly, if a bit crazily, one halfheartedly) for their marriage party, the next moment watching Dan the Lawyer and Brazilian Woman carry on their odd little love story in half naked abandon. Every so often Bob pops up to sing, or spout his complaints about the state of the earth (um...when did global warming become a theme?) only to pause and let Femme-Fatale-Lily and Detective (Peter Allen Stone) - who appears 2/3rds into the play-talk like 1940s characters and play out some story which I couldn't quite figure out, save for the fact that it has something to do with illegal immigration. Oh, that's right...this is a story about green card marriages.

Finally, it's over. A bit with a bang, a bit with a whimper, you get half a happy ending (at least for one couple) and the exact ending you expected for the other couple. All in all, I felt there was a lot of interesting ways to tell the story of a crumbling green card marriage that perhaps didn't involve all the bells and whistles...this story could have been told more directly without the musical numbers, the rear projection that echoed exactly what was being played out on stage and the whole Femme Fatale subplot. In fact, this show had probably three characters too many; none of whom added much to the story. Which is not to say that the cast themselves don't do a great job of hanging on to this play as it careens from one side of "wedded bliss" to the other, but I feel that much of what was trying to be said could have been spoken with quiet desperation rather than enormous outbursts of shrill hysteria.

The Shalimar Theatre Company presents
Nastaran Ahmadi's
May 28th-June 14th, 2009
The Ontological Theater

Tickets are $17 ($12 Students), for more information visit

The Ontological Theater At St. Mark's Church | 131 East 10th Street at 2nd Ave. | Manhattan.

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