Often, the most interesting things in life happen at the junctures, the pivot points. The places where tectonic plates of identity and culture crumble and fracture are often the sites of new growth and exciting possibilities. Or, at the very least, it’s a place where you can spend a hell of an interesting hour or two.
In the world premiere of Akarui, now at the Cleveland Public Theatre, playwright Jen Silverman pitches her dramatic tent on several different steaming fissures: transgender issues; murder, guilt and death; and medical experimentation. The result is astounding in all respects, even with a couple performances that fail to capture the twisted grandiosity of Silverman’s vision.
It starts off with Dr. Baba Yaga (gender indeterminate) who is trying to nurture an avocado seed placed in the dead body of Joshua (an innocent James Alexander Rankin). This young man, we learn in time, was murdered on a beach, his body subsequently retrieved by the doc as a medium for growing new blooms. Trouble is, Joshua is alive, apparently, and dealing with his transformation from life to death with gathering irritation.
Meanwhile DC is a transitioning female-to-male T in the process of picking her way through the gender underbrush. He’s chatting up gay men on the Internet while revealing little about himself, until he connects with a young man half-a-world away.
Web pal Mateu is attracted to DC, especially after they Skype each other. But Mateu’s time is divided since he’s shacking up with a troubled dude named Stack who has recently killed a man on a beach.
Mateu eventually convinces DC to come his way and experience the transformative power of DJ Akarui, a hypnotic presence who spins music and identities with equal agility.
Thus, all the stories begin to converge, and we’ve seen that before. What’s new is everything else about the production.
This includes Silverman’s sometimes oblique yet disciplined words, the vibrant staging by director Raymond Bobgan, and the pounding, highly percussive Afro-Brazilian Candomble music that keeps the pace percolating.
Arrayed on set designer Todd Krispinsky’s impressive three-tier metal scaffolding, the actors climb, swing and jump into and out of scenes, often with sheets of plastic serving as temporary walls and ceilings. It’s a feast of visual and auditory surprises with a story that actually makes sense despite its fractured audacity.
As Dr. Yaga, Beth Wood is monstrously effective, somehow dodging all the “crazy scientist” stereotypes to create a uniquely deranged and strangely vulnerable wacko. At one point, she conducts a “maximally invasive cardiac replacement surgery” on Joshua, substituting a cactus plant for his heart.
Also excellent is Chris Seibert in the role of DJ Akarui. Although not in the spotlight frequently, she performs with her signature intensity and makes every one of the DJ’s appearances memorable.
But the most amazing portrayal is turned in by Molly Andrews-Hinders as the confused and tormented DC. Channeling the Hilary Swank vibe from Boys Don’t Cry, then adding her own levels of depth, Andrews-Hinders is riveting and poignant. Especially powerful are the moments when DC reflects on the difficulties transition, when she’s stuck in-between the two genders and knows she’s not coming across believably.
As a plain-spoken Stack, Lew Wallace is a properly haunted fellow, although there are layers to this man that go unexplored. Similarly, Richard Brandon Hall has some nice turns as Mateu. But he doesn’t display the vocal prowess and physical presence necessary to evoke the magnetic character the playwright has fashioned.
A chorus of eight dancer/singers (plus one lithe man playing a manta ray) adds immeasurably to the texture of the production.
Director Bobgan, inventive and bold without pushing the envelope too far, is clearly vibrating on the same wave length as the playwright. Therefore, this production soars when it could easily crumple under the weight of all its elements.
In Akarui, the idea of change and transformation is detailed with almost pointillist exactitude. But no matter how much change one seeks, it’s a finite process. As DC notes ruefully: “There’s nowhere to go when you keep bringing yourself with you.”
Through June 9 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727