Theater review by Maya Tribbitt
Victor I. Cazares’s american (tele)visions begins in a dystopian American wasteland, also known as a Wal-Mart. Gathered around a shopping cart of affordable items are the members of “a family of illegal immigrants” from Mexico in the early 1990s. The tomboyish preteen Erica (Bianca “b” Norwood) serves as our narrator, oscillating between naiveté and omniscience. She describes her parents in images: Her factory-worker father Octavio (Raúl Castillo) is “a television,” while her mother Maria (an impeccably dressed Elia Monte-Brown) is “a Christmas Tree Little Debbie Cake.” Since Erica’s older brother, Alejandro, is dead, she recruits his friend Jesse (Clew) to stand in for him.
The play starts with a jolt that evokes turning on a TV, and the channels switch fast from then on. Characters, timelines and set pieces whip back and forth so quickly that it’s often unclear what is meant to be real. Bretta Gerecke’s clever set consists of four large corroded metal boxes, stacked on each other, that open up as the play reveals its secrets. In director Ruben Polendo’s staging, they often serve as screens for projected images, as do the back and side walls of New York Theatre Workshop’s wide stage. There’s no easy way to keep track of the universes the characters inhabit, which draw on sources including telenovelas, Saturday-morning cartoons and 8-bit video games to offer a chaotic and confounding look at the multitudes contained within a queer American immigrant experience.
The production's lighting and set work alongside pre-recorded video and live camerawork to create a hypnotic, carnivalesque environment for the audience and the characters alike. As Erica’s whimsical gay neighbor Jeremy, Ryan J. Haddad—who uses a walker—is the delightful force behind the show’s funniest scenes (including some hilarious forays into Barbie-doll lore), and Clew’s understated performance as Jesse/Alejandro features a few shifts that make you do a double take. But the sophisticated graphics often overwhelm the performances and the storytelling. american (tele)visions takes an ambitiously wide look at major themes (consumerism, gender, technology), but its jumpy approach is less HDTV than ADHD. The channels keep changing, but a lot of the play is static.
american (tele)visions. New York Theatre Workshop (Off Broadway). By Victor I. Cazares. Directed by Rubén Polendo. With Bianca “b” Norwood, Elia Monte-Brown, Raúl Castillo, Clew, Ryan J. Haddad. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.