Friday, February 14, 2014

A Cat Named Mercy by Josefina López

By Joe Straw

I would hope that when I die, and leave this earthly plane, I’m looking my historical best, where my hair was just right, my complexion perfect, and the body strength that I worked on for so long stayed with me as I traveled into the white light. I couldn’t ask for more or less.  - Narrator

Casa 0101 presents A Cat Named Mercy, a world premiere play by Josefina López and directed by Hector Rodriguez January 24 through February 23, 2014.

A Cat Named Mercy starts at the end where Catalina Rodriguez (Alex Ximenez) is dying and walking into the light. Then everything is in flashback mode and we travel to the beginning. Or so it appears.

“I have to go home.” – Catalina

And, reminiscent of Emily Webb going back home in Our Town, Catalina is now home, feeding her blind diabetic mother, Mama Rodriguez (Blanca Araceli), confined to a wheelchair.   

And there Mama Rodriguez sits, crying, but mostly she shed tears for the taste of a good chorizo. Frustrated dependable Catalina tries her best to take care of her mother by giving her healthy food, like that insufferable hard-boiled egg, topped with a tasteless cup of applesauce. Looking at the food on the tray Mama begs her daughter to kill her.

Catalina just rolls her eyes.  And while she is at it, Mama laments about her other daughter Marga (Maricela Guardado) who went away (later we learn she has committed suicide).  Catalina tells her to eat her healthy breakfast and leaves for work.  Her mother takes her breakfast, rolls to trash container, and slides the food into the long empty repository.

At work in a nursing home, Catalina greets Mr. Smith (Henry Aceves Madrid) who is feeling his age.  A moment later, he falls down, dies, and after resuscitation, comes back to life with her help.  As if awakened by a beautiful sleep Mr. Smith says that he has seen his wife, that dying is beautiful, and that he not afraid anymore.

Kitty Randolph (Susan Davis), a new patient, is being escorted in a wheel chair to her room by her grandson Brad (Alex Denney).  It seems Kitty and her son has had a falling out.   For reasons unknown to us, her son has thrown her out of the house. Brad is sorry this has happened but wants to speak to his grandmother about his new business venture.  

In the hallway, Catalina has a friendly conversation with her co-worker Kate (Marquel Skinner).  Kate, liberal arts major, is a wall bumper, someone who doesn’t look where she is going, and gets a lot of things mixed up.  She mixes up the urine with the apple juice. (Note to Kate:  The urine is warm.) Not a good combination when you’re giving pills to the elderly. But Catalina tries to smooth things over and helps her to overcome the critical moments of her job.

Meanwhile Mrs. Randall, a southern woman, tells Joy Acosta (Minerva Vier), the manager of the nursing home, that she doesn’t want Mexicans touching her, only the white staff so that she feels safe, and by all means “no blacks”.

Trying to get the best “white” person suitable for Kitty Randolph, Joy asks Catalina about Kate’s performance.  Catalina, trying to be helpful, gives Kate a “9” only to find out later that Kate will replace her.  Joy then cuts her hours and her medical insurance.  When Catalina protests, Joy warns that she can find work elsewhere.

Later Catalina finds out from Doctor Dubois (Rebecca Davis) that she has cancer in the uterus and needs surgery.  Catalina tells the doctor that she no longer has insurance. 

“No insurance.  No surgery.” – Doctor Dubois

Catalina runs outside and has a panic attack.  There she meets a white cat that consoles her.  She calls the cat Mercy (Beatriz Eugenia Vasquez).

Meanwhile the incompetent, fair-complexional Kate has been promoted, is full time, and even has her own office. And when Catalina asks Joy for the reason, well.

“Kate got a “nine” from you and you got a “seven”.  - Joy  

Later Catalina comes home to find that her mom has been out on the streets and is hurt but cannot go to the doctor because she is undocumented.

And back at work, Catalina finds out that Kate has almost killed Mrs. Randolph by mixing up the drugs. Catalina saves her and Mrs. Randolph has an epiphany.

Later, the angular, square-jawed Brad runs into Catalina in the hall of the nursing home.  He is somewhat smitten by her and asks her out.  She hesitantly says yes, before he rushes in to see his grandmother with a plastic potted plant.  

But Brad has a nefarious purpose in mind.  He asks his grandmother for money but Mrs. Randall says she has given it away to the Negro College Fund.  And now she wants to see Catalina.

“Bring that Latina girl in here.” - Mrs. Randall

Here’s where it gets a little tricky.  Mrs. Randall wants Catalina to perform a service for money.  When Brad finds out, he aggressively and ruthlessly goes after Catalina and the money.  And when other patients find out what Catalina is doing, they also want to be a part of the action.   

There are a number of clever moments in Josefina Lopez’s play. She wrote to inspire discussion about death and dying.  And that part succeeds.  I, for one, am always talking about the hereafter, more so after this play. But this show is not really about the title, A Cat Named Mercy.  Mercy, yes.  Cat, no. Strangely enough, I had seen the news report about the cat that sat with the dying and found it fascinating.  But… Where is the focal point of this play, the through line?  It’s not about the cat.  It’s not about nursing homes.  It’s not about dying.  And it’s not really about health care.  What is the show about?  Well, maybe it’s about all of these things because they are connected in some fashion or another.  But I would love to have this play have a stronger through line and a provocative structure. The needle with a lethal dose, that Catalina carries around in her pocket, is there as a matter of convenience rather than something she has to get, or find, or concoct in a hurry.  In the end, Catalina does not end up in the bright light, which is slightly confusing.  But, all in all, I felt better coming out of the theatre this night and that is a testament to the play.

Hector Rodriguez, the director, has some very fine moments in this play, in particular the death scenes worked very well.  But a lot of action requires more thought.  At times, characters are standing around center stage speaking to each other without regard to character, action, and objectives.  And the 911-operator is seated on another level without any reason.  Is he supposed to be a God-like figure and, if so, why is God flirting with Catalina? In the opening moments of the play, I really got the impression that Catalina died – walking into the white light means dying. And based on this opening, the rest of the play should have been stylized to create or to give it a stronger through line.  The director, in rehearsals, should throw in the kitchen sink, discard what doesn’t work, and keep the wonderful creative moments that do work. The blackouts between scenes should be kept to an extreme minimum.

The actors had some opening-night jitters and were for the most part believable, and physically suited for the part. I, for one, would like to see stronger characterizations, and more levels.   The actors were saying the words rather than playing developed characters, with many layers, as one likes to see on stage.  

In the play “Sylvia” by A.R. Gurney, Gurney’s use of a human actor to play a dog, Sylvia, worked well.  Based on this, my initial suggestion for this production was to keep the girl (Beatriz Eugenia Vasquez) and get rid of the cat puppets, Mercy and Pacifico (or save for a younger audience). Still, Beatriz Eugenia Vasquez does a very fine job with the dancing and puppetry.  

Alex Ximenez plays Catalina and she is very likeable and has some fine moments.

Blanca Araceli is Mama Rodriguez and I thought her performance was superb bordering on sublime. Every moment was played to perfection. And as the character of Spirit of Mama Rodriguez, she looked twenty years younger.  Araceli is the kind of performer one hopes to see when venturing out to see theatre.

Michael Cota plays the 911 Operator and the Cameraman and needs to find out why he is stuck way up in the balcony and find a way to come down and relate to the character in spirit or find a stronger characterization way up in the booth. As the cameraman he appeared to shoot the reporter only, which I found odd.

Rebecca Davis as Doctor Dubois/Health Insurance Agent/Manager/Surgeon/Prison Inmate does some really fine work, has a very nice look, and is no stranger to the stage. Her work is very specific and detailed.

Susan Davis as Kitty Randolph had some slight problem in the opening moments of the play but settled down and finished in grand style.

Alex Denney plays Brad Randolph and the Spirit of Mr. Randolph. Denney is the angular and bad Anglo in this production.  An interesting aspect of this characterization is how physically abusive he becomes in a manner of a heartbeat. I would have liked to see this character as extremely polite and conniving all in the same person with the same goal without becoming abusive just to see how this would look. Killing them with kindness.  Denney has a good look and should do well in this industry.

Maricela Guardado does some very good work as Spirit of Marga Rodriguez/Spirit of Smith, and TV Reporter.

Henry Aceves Madrid is Harold Smith/Spirit of Harold Smith/Spirit of Papa Encarnación did a fine job of near death, death, and departed. Madrid has a very good look and is always a welcomed sight at Casa 0101.

Carmelita Maldonado plays Belinda Ortiz (Social Worker) and Prison Guard.  Maria G. Martinez is Martha Encarnación and Spirit of Martha Encarnación. Bill Reyes is the Radio Announcer/Judge.

Marquel Skinner plays Kate Scott/Prison Inname/Surgeon Nurse.  The words suggest she is incompetent but her actions on stage say little in that regard.  Skinner requires a deeper focus on characterization, more layers in her character, and specific actions that will give the character more body and life. There’s nothing wrong with what she is doing if only she would add more to the character.

Minerva Vier plays Joy Acosta/Filipina Lady and has a very lovely voice, projects well, and has a nice Filipina accent. Vier should find ways to liven the scenes where is speaking to her counterparts, which seemed stilted at times.  Her managerial style is perfectly suited to a business situation, but lacks the layers one would need for the stage. She needs to find ways to improve the nursing home around her while giving dialogue.  Humor could be brought in as well as a including strong persuasive desire to change another character’s way of thinking.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Mary Mendoza – Co-Producer/Assistant Director
Benjamin Pohlmeier – Co-Producer
Matthew Sanchez – Stage Manager/Props Manager
Marco De Leon – Set Designer
Dorothy Amos – Costume Designer
Vincent Sanchez – Lighting Designer/Sound Programmer/Casa 0101 Facilities Manager
Jorge Villanueva – Light Board Operator
Emmanuel Deleague – Casa 0101 Executive Director
Mark Kraus – Webmaster, Casa 0101 Administrator
Sohail e. Najafi – Casa 0101 Technical Director
Ed Krieger – Production Photographer
Steve Moyer – Public Relations

Going to Casa 0101 is a very pleasant experience.  Josefina López and Emmanuel Deleague open their arms to greet patrons into their theatre.  It is a wonderful theatre and an adventure going there.

Run!  And take someone who is afraid of dying and cats.

Tix and info at

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