Saturday, December 7, 2013

Handball by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld

L - R Spencer Weitzel and Matias Ponce 

by Joe Straw

Gentrification: noun - the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper - or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses. –

The inhabitants move into the park like a human being in a cubist painting, intertwined, appearing like passing imaginings of wasted time, and never really grasping the concept of carpe diem. - Narrator

Urban Theatre Movement presents the World Premier of Handball written by Setyh Zvi Rosenfeld and directed by Brenda Banda through December 15, 2013

All right, I have to get this out of the way.  I loved paying handball in college and I wanted to see handball being played in this play.  Do they really play handball in “Handball”? I asked the press representative. He muttered, “Um yeah, they play a little.” Okay, so now I’m going.

Truth be told, very little handball was played.  Only a feeble warm up, a ball batted against the wall twice. I was a little disappointed. Bottom line, I’d like a little more handball action.

But, I was not disappointed in the play.  Handball is a tremendous work of art that employs a vast array of unique characters living very divergent lives around a handball court in New York City.  From the opening moments to the closing scene, characters are, in their own way, fighting for a piece of this concrete jungle, trying to stay out of trouble, and searching for their own specific niche under their capricious sun.  Some succeed, and others, well they don’t.

As the play starts upstage from the handball court, Javier (Charles Sanchez) takes his training very seriously in the park.  His family has handed the sport down from one generation to another. The graffiti on the wall of the handball courts says, “Rest in Power” (RIP?). And while this young man, training bare-chested in the park prepares, he is disappointed that RA-RA (Carlton Byrd) hasn’t shown up yet.

But, RA-RA, former thief in action, doesn’t appear to be interested in handball but he is interested in Lil’ Lucy (Daniela de la Fe), a fifteen-year-old girl, who moves her hips in provocative ways when she dances in the confines of this beautiful park.   And that sends RA-RA over his hormonal edge, and to that end, thievery and handball take a backseat.  

Javier indicates that he will introduce her to him if he gets serious about practice.  But just then, someone comes by and throws what appears to be wet toilet paper at the guys and Javier and RA-RA exchange vociferous words, up to those invisible infiltrators, who turn up the boom box and stroll away.

And when that is settled,

“Lil Lucy!  Come here!” - Javier

And, of course, she doesn’t come right away.

Off to the side, Christopher (Spencer Weitzel) and Laurie (Isabel Davila) invade the park, similar to what Columbus did to the New World, and view it as their landscape to do what they wish, pending approval of a planning committee and the funding they need to get the project running.  Right now they view the park as an eyesore that needs to be fixed up because they’ve got big plans on the hotel across the street.  

Javier doesn’t like it at all, them or their plans, and removes their reconstruction sign from a tree and throws it on the ground in front of them.  

No matter, Christopher and Laurie, go about their business fixing up the place and wait for their friend Orlando, the man with the money, to talk about the deal and implement the plan. Later, Christopher goes as far as assuaging Orlando up with a bottle of wine.

Meanwhile, former drug runner, Barry (Paul Julianelli) and auto mechanic Gee (Luis Kelly-Duarte) come to the park and do their “interview in the park routine”.  One gets the feeling they have done this many times to fleece someone of something.  Laurie is their first victim but Gee can’t get money out of her.  She and her husband are broke, months behind in their rent, the victim of bad business deals, and so on.  

Barry and Gee go to their place in the park, get the dominos set up, and wait for their friend Panama (Jeff De Serrano) to show. Panama, unbuttons his guayara shirt, smokes his cigar, and in his jocose manner likes to think that he running the show at the park and running everyone’s lives as well. All the while Panama’s wife is at home dying of a cancer.

Finally Lil’ Lucy comes to the park and stares at Javier and RA-RA.  All three stand their ground.  Lil’ Lucy, sucking on a Tootsie Pop, says she’s on “punishment” and won’t give out her number to RA-RA.  Partially because it’s her grandmothers phone and the other part is the phone company has turned off the phone.  She also says she is seeing a married man.

Meanwhile Barry, sitting at the domino table, is in trouble, and he is going to jail.  He needs Panama’s help to get him out of his predicament but Panama is not really into giving this man – living with who knows how many cats – any help.  The only thing Barry’s got is his Keith Haring artwork and he is willing to trade it not to go to prison.

I’m not a big fan of gentrification simply because it pushes people out. But Handball gives us something, a peak into why this happens.  Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, the writer, provides authentic dialogue to voices with a gritty city rhythm, crying with emotional anxiety, raw and sometimes powerful. These are real people living predictable lives and we see this highlighted in their sometimes-mundane dialogue. Keeping something the same, when the world is trying to change, is like stepping in front the tank at Tianamen Square and waiting for the evitable.  But is it change for the good? Rosenfeld lets us know that action moves mountains, and that if you sit still you are likely to be run over by inaction and that is not a good thing. Still, I’m not sure I’m seeing a strong and comprehensive through line. There are no heroes in this play, but there are plenty of villains.  One can examine this play and see a writer’s point of view - that characters anointed by education are the ones chosen to move mountains.  The educated voice is always the voice of reason, which may not be true to the one holding the brick.  That tidbit aside the play was enjoyable from beginning to end.

Brenda Banda, the director, does a marvelous job with this piece.  The characters move about the stage very fluidly and we are guided from one conversation to another as we would in a park setting. Also, there is a lot of marvelous life coming from these characters with a lot of complexity thrown in to boot. Visually there is an extremely strong sense of craft here and the staging is remarkable in its execution. Also, there is a really interesting visual in the end, and not to give anything away, but, the new park, with its nice trees, appeared to be deserted. 

L - R Matias Ponce, Carlton Byrd, Daniela de la Fe

Carlton Byrd plays RA-RA with enough vitality and emotional appeal to be engaging. RA-RA is on the verge of a metal breakdown.  He is 17 years old and in love with a 15-year-old girl in a mystery relationship.  His non-believer stance on the Pentecostal religion got him thrown out of his foster home. He cares little for this park because he has other things on his mind. On top of that RA-RA is in a group home and is turning 18 in three weeks.  Things have to change, but in three weeks he pictures himself homeless, or in a homeless shelter. He has a dream and that is to turn his life around and stay out of jail. That dream is harder to come by as the days roll on. Byrd, the actor, has a time element with which to work.  Three weeks is no time in order to turn the character’s life around. Not to take away but to add to already exceptional work.

Isabel Davila is Laurie, Latina, and is a very interesting character.  She cannot keep silent because she has a need for information. Laurie is pregnant, has a husband with many financial difficulties and who is also sexuality ambivalent, or has been in the past. She works with her husband trying to turn the run down park into something that will be beautiful and beneficial to them but ignores her Latino brethren in the process. Laurie perceives to be interested in those using the park today, but in reality cares little for the Latino park patrons that she is about to displace.  It is a wonderful role for Davila and she is marvelous in the role.

Daniela de la Fe plays Lil’ Lucy and her performance is very nuanced with a street language that is spoken clearly or not depending on what she is trying to hide. She wants her boyfriend to be honest with her but she doesn’t want to reciprocate. De la Fe has an honest approach to her craft, a strong coruscation with each nuance, and that method is stimulating.

Jeff De Serrano plays Panama a ruthless man who will stop at nothing to get his way but he realizes that he is not the young man he once was and is tiring of doing things by his own natural force and complains “Hard to get out of bed these days.”  His wife is dying and has weeks to live and he spends his non-slacking moments taking care of her when he isn’t in the park, hanging. (Oddly, none of the other characters has sympathy for him.)  And the park is his territory. Nothing happens in this park without his say so, or so that is the impression he gives with the implication of brute force.  There is something off with Panama when he asks his friend to take off his shirt and then his pants.  De Serrano provides a lot of wonderful actions to bring this character to life.  But, could his fate be directly related to feeling he has for his wife?  

Paul Julianelli plays Barry.  Barry is a very odd character.  He lives with so many cats he doesn’t know the exact number. Thirteen at last count. He has a problem taking control of his life and people want to throw him in jail to get him out of his $400.00 apartment, which has turned condo. He also sells drugs. The Keith Haring artwork did not go anywhere and I’m wondering if something didn’t go right on this night. Still Julianelli is an exciting actor to watch.  He is specific in his approach in bringing a marvelous character to life.

Luis Kelly-Duarte plays an honorable auto mechanic, Gee.  When he is not working on cars he is hanging in the park trying to make a quick buck playing dominos or trying to swindle some loose change with his partner in some kind of interview ponzi scheme. His wife is very large. But there is something very righteous about this character convincing Panama that going with the 15-year-old girl is not the right thing to do. Kelly-Duarte also is a very fine actor and brings a wonderful characterization to this delightful character.

David Santana plays Orlando, a gay man whose father has a lot of money and lives in South America.  Orlando comes back to see his friend, a man he has had a relationship with and is totally in love him.  So much in love he’s called him over thirty times without getting a return phone call.  But while he was in South America staying with another man, the other man left him and now he comes to America to renew his relationship with his friend. Santana is strong and steadfast in character and doesn’t give an inch. There’s another level of an emotional commitment from this character. Still Santana did a fine job.

Spencer Weitzer as Christopher is a desperate man.  At one time, he came from money and due to a couple of bad transactions, the money disappeared.  Now he is months behind in rent, with a wife, and a child on the way.  Not to mention that now he needs help from his former male lover, a young man’s thing for which he not proud.  Now he needs help from everyone to make sure his business plan goes through. When it doesn’t look that it is going through Christopher becomes desperate. Weitzer does an excellent job with desperation, including sweating profusely on cue, and his objective is strong and steadfast.  

Charles Sanchez plays Javier and does a decent job. (I’m still not sure that he can play handball.)  Javier is the catalyst that gets things moving, boy meeting girl, trying to get on the committee, and saving his wall.  But there’s really something missing here.  Javier appears when he is filling in the blanks rather than having a deep committed objective that in the end makes him take the brick from his wall and do what he does.  We don’t see the steps that take us there. But Sanchez has a good look and provides us with a few laughs.

Other member of the cast that I did not see perform on this night were Matias Ponce (Javier), David V. Graulau (Orlando), Dyane Pascall (RA-RA), C.W. Smith (Gee), Johnny Young (Christopher).

Other members of this crew are as follows:

Amery Thao – Assistant Director
Angela Cruz – Stage Manager
Geronimo Guzman – Set Designer
Kimberly Gonzalez – Assistant Stage Manager
Oscar Rios Gomez – Lighting Designer
Keith Morgan II and Dyane Pascall – Sound Designer
Phil Sokoloff – Press Representative
Charlie Sanchez – Photos

Run!  Run!  And takes someone who loves diversity and fine acting in their theatre!


RESERVATIONS: (323) 620-5881.

No comments:

Post a Comment