A flight of fantasy
Iro is a sad young teen whose parents died tragic deaths, and who now lives with a family that abuses her. Her solace is an imaginary friend, Annika, and her quest for the winged Pegasus that symbolizes her yearning for figurative and literal escape from the painful present. Together, girl and spirit climb aboard steamer trunks on a barren stage and visit a world that Iro knows only through the adventure stories told by her archeologist uncle, now in Greece.
Thus, Act One of Rachel Bublitz’s world premiere of Serpents and Sea Spray is a wild, episodic voyage in which Iro and her invisible accomplice fly by the great sites of the world and encounter pirates and a circus troupe along the way. But intermittently, they must return to the sad reality of suffering and loss. The action is frenetic in the manner of a fantasy farce. Many in the audience respond favorably to this style, though some, this writer included, find it a bit clanging and disjointed. Because actors play multiple roles, it can be a little confusing to figure which parts they are playing, and sometimes, whether they are in fantasy or reality. But the play is worth seeing for the elements that director Ariel Craft has successfully integrated.
One thing for sure is that the acting is superb throughout the cast. Maria Leigh as Iro is intense and in total command of her role – a seemingly exhausting, high energy part. As Annika, Maria Marquis is amazing. She has elasticity like Jim Carrey and uses facial and whole body expression, as well as exacting delivery of lines, to great comic effect.
Andrew Calabrese is solid as the lead male actor in multiple parts, most importantly as the unnamed uncle. Sabrina de Mio is a commanding presence in the meaty, materfamilias/gang leader/nurse roles she portrays. Her characterizations are widely differing, and she is called on to affect various mannerisms and accents, which she does with glee. Laura Domingo and Heren Patel provide fine support in smaller parts and are clearly capable of major roles.
Act Two reveals a split personality in the production, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as it produces the play’s redemption. A more measured poignancy is introduced to the action. Stemming from the closing incident in Act One, which had seemed to be a fantasy, Iro is hospitalized with multiple injuries. The stage is now but a few square black columns and a bed.
Her uncle returns from Greece to tend to her. While Iro still pursues the quest for Pegasus, this act is very grounded by the presence of the reality-driven uncle. Despite the uncle’s sacrifice to be with her; his efforts to be accommodative; and his willingness to play along with her fantasies, Iro is largely implacable. She now sees him as a regular person rather than the adventure hero that she’d imagined him from the stories that he’d told in years past. The character we wanted to console and embrace in Act One becomes an unsympathetic ingrate in Act Two. Of course, the denoument concerns if or how the conflicts resolve, and for that, you have to see for yourself.
of Serpents and Sea Spray is produced by Custom Made Theatre and plays at Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco through January 30.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association