Tuesday, November 15, 2011

THEATER: The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness

Photo/Web Begole
Real life is rarely as simplistic as fairy tales make it out to be, and the road to reconciliation is never paved with breadcrumbs. Nonetheless, there's hope and beauty in Carla Ching's The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness, which keeps the Hansel and Gretel references to a minimum, and instead focuses on the ways in which people grieve, or as the show tweets to its audience, "What do you do when you lose something you can never get back?" For Han (Christopher Larkin), you can only make sense through songs, and for his foster sister Greta (Ali Ahn), communication happens through tweets, which allow her to defend herself with Sun Tzu-like precision. Some, like Greta's housemate Miles (Bjorn Dupaty), channel their rage through dance, while others who are more advanced in the suffering of the world, like Han and Greta's guardians, Opal (April Matthis) and Doc (David Spangler), understand how to listen. But after accidentally causing a fire, Greta finds that she must prove herself not to her family, but to her hermetic jailer/counselor, Barbara "Baba" Yaga (Cindy Cheung), who has her own prescriptions for swallowing sadness with as many spoonfuls of sugar as it takes. At the same time, Han must come to grips with his own tightly wound emotions, lest he wind up just as isolated and lost in the wilderness as his sister.

The Sugar House is impeccably directed by Daniella Topol, who neatly showcases the various ways we cope and communicate, splattering tweets across Clint Ramos's two-dimensional, compressed house of a set, while wisely stepping back from interfering with the simple guitar songs written by Ching and Larkin. Topol also wisely elides over some of the more fanciful elements of the show, turning Baba from a villainous witch into a overconfident analyst, one who just happens to drug her patients, creepily stroke them (as if they were pets she were teaching to perform tricks), and occasionally lock up in isolation. It's met by an able cast, too, particularly Ahn, who never gets lost in the complexities of time-skipping script, that presents her as a rebellious arsonist one moment and an overcompensating street tough, a lighthearted sister, a mourning daughter, a betrayed and wounded girl, or a smugly Stepfordian penitent the next. In a play that lightly addresses cultural identity, moderately examines familial identity, and stresses personal identity, this is a more impressive feat than words can do justice.

 Speaking of words, Ching's language is a delight, defying standard forms of expression in favor of finding words that are inexplicably right. For instance, in one of the group therapy sessions established by Baba, Greta explains that she's feeling "puce" about the fire: "It's a hot, ugly, uncomfortable color." Later, when Miles is helping Greta to survive Baba's crushing rules of conformity, he explains that "Normal is a coat you can put on or take off": in other words, we don't have to be defined or constrained by any single brushstroke. At the same time, Ching balances her poetry with simply put phrases that just as effectively capture the mood: "It's an awful thing to not have a place," says Miles, helping Greta to find her angered brother. Best of all, her characters are far from the moral saints of fairy tales: Greta isn't always deserving of sympathy, and Doc and Opal have their own moments of selfishness and resentment; the story, then, is in how they overcome themselves just to earn a shot at living happily ever after.

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