Review: “B” by Guillermo Calderón. Produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre. Directed by Jay O’Leary. Scenic Design by Lex Marcos. Costume Design by Ricky German. Lighting Design by Tristan Roberson. Sound Design by Maggie Rogers. Property Design by Robin Macartney. With Sophie Franco, Craig Peterson, Shermona Mitchell, Klarissa Marie Robles. Now through January 28, 2019 at 12th Avenue Arts.
Dark comedy and political protest…a match made in Dramaturgical Heaven!
South/Central American literature and drama is frequently political, motivated by decades of problematic rule under dictatorial regimes in…well, pretty much every country south of the Rio Grande at one time or the other. (We have it north of the Rio Grande, too, but the “el norte” American problem tends to be more based in capitalism than political ideologies, though they frequently intertwine….but we digress). Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende to name check a few but also everything from Costa-Gavras’ film “Missing” to musicals like “Evita” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” based on the novel by Manuel Puig. Politics and corruption and rebellion and resistance and capitalism and militarism and Catholicism all frequently merge in the drama of the region and most of that is found in “B” the 2017 play by Chilean playwright/film maker Guillermo Calderón now onstage at 12th Avenue Arts as part of Washington Ensemble Theatre’s 2018/19 season.
“B” centers on a pair of young female anarchists protesting the excesses of their unspecified country’s corrupt regime and capitalistic influences leading to inequality by placing small bombs outside banks and businesses; the bombing incidents aren’t meant to kill anyone but to raise awareness with a protest that damages things not people. Most of the other members of their activist group have been imprisoned and the less experienced Alejandra and Marcela need help with creating a new bomb (referred to as a “B” or the “cheese” for security reasons) and seek out the help of an experienced bomb maker/agitator named José Miguel.
Alejandra and Marcela have secured a safe space to meet with José Miguel, a rather incongruously gorgeous very modern/high end apartment and their cover story is they’re gathering to have a birthday celebration. But, Marcela is flustered by the attentions of nosy but seemingly kind neighbor lady Carmen who asks too many questions with the result that Marcela fumbles and adds to the cover story by blurting out she’s just learned her boyfriend was killed by terrorists in a bombing. Alejandra is furious that Marcela may have compromised them as now they have to deal with Carmen popping in to express concern for their well being.
Eventually, José Miguel rather flamboyantly arrives, in party clothes and carrying a present (actually the “B” aka the bomb) and all three terrorists don masks to avoid being able to identify one another. They then discuss the plan to finish creating the bomb but things start to get derailed with a disgustingly bizarre request from José Miguel and completely fall apart as the three begin to argue over their motives for committing this terrorist act; José Miguel is an old school rebel and doesn’t get the women’s reasons for their “non-violent” acts of violence and in rather long monologues/confessionals we learn the back stories of all three characters (and, eventually Carmen the neighbor has one, too.)
I found “B” to be an interesting play; Guillermo Calderón has created intriguing characters and a compelling premise all based on real experiences from his native Chile where a “non-violent” protest group staged similar bombings in Santiago in the mid 2000s. There’s definitely a “Pinter-esque” thing going on here with the oddly oblique characters, long pauses and rather deliberate pacing. Personally, the pacing did get a little sluggish by the end of the roughly 100 minutes or so of the running time. And, I’m not sure if I “buy” the ending, which I won’t spoil, but the play does seem a bit long and over-explanatory (while not really explaining anything) by the final black out which left the audience baffled as to whether the play was over or not (there is no curtain call).
The production itself is quite handsome; a gleaming white cube of a modern expressionistic set gorgeously designed by Lex Marcos with an equally bold lighting design by Tristan Roberson and a subtle but powerful sound design by Maggie Rogers. Ricky German’s vivid costume choices include a ridiculously pink house frau get up for the nosy neighbor and an over the top party outfit for José Miguel. None of these big design choices are apparently indicated in the script and while the effect is visually stunning, it’s debatable if they actually make much sense (why would a bomb making terrorist call attention to himself with an exaggerated outfit?) As a fan of “big” design I can appreciate the execution but also question its appropriateness.
All four actors are very good; it’s a tight ensemble with strong work from Sophie Franco as the more mature of the two young justice warriors and Klarissa Marie Robles as the more emotional and passionate of the pair. Craig Peterson is deliciously self-assured as the rather vain-glorious more experienced rebel, José Miguel though it should be noted he seems a bit young for the role which seems to be indicated for an actor well into his 40s.
Shermona Mitchell, as usual, kinda/sorta/mostly steals the show as the Mrs. Kravitz-y neighbor lady, Carmen…seemingly a minor character, yet one that pops up with some regularity, in a combo of cozy lounge pants, robe, fluffy slippers and usually brandishing a sweet of some kind, all of which are in various shades of pink. It’s a performance that’s hilarious yet menacing all at the same time and the performance/role are vital in a play like “B” which uneasily straddles a line between agitprop drama and very dark comedy.
Its languors aside, I mostly enjoyed “B”. Director Jay O’Leary has made some bold choices here, some of which may or may not actually work but I can appreciate a bold choice that may/may not succeed over not making any bold choices at all. I think the production could benefit from a slightly faster pace (the play was 10 minutes longer than it needs to be IMO) but all in all, “B” was the kind of theater production we need to encourage in Seattle….telling different kinds of stories about different kinds of people in an innovative way.