Big Magic in a Small Space: Notes on ‘Willa’s Authentic Self’
For a play with the word “Authentic” in its title, it’s extremely theatrical. There’s a giant furry egg; talking roaches; kibitzing ants; a transformed, eco-utopic New York; songs; James Dean (with his attendant giant plaster head and giant plastic hand). Oh, and a puckish, neon-faced, unstoppably horny Golem.
But this is part of Lisa Clair’s authenticity — big gestures, loud colors, songs belted out at the top of your lungs and range. The bigness, in addition to being a delight, is a form of authenticity. It is a reminder of what theatricality does — explodes the inner world, makes waking life merge with dream, allows the heart and gut to make a crayon drawing of the world, then play and cry on the technicolor landscape.
Watching Willa, I found myself feeling so glad. Lisa Clair, with her fabulous team, with the help of intrepid independent producers Immediate Medium, New Georges, and Blaze Ferrer, is not only making a weird play — she is insisting on the persistence of “The Downtown.” A play with seven people? Fully designed? With larger-than-life theatrical elements? In this economy?
The result is strange, messy, and masterful. It might even restore one’s faith in independent theater.
Willa is a strange play. It follows the titular Willa as, spurred on by eruptions of dream into reality, she builds a Golem, who semi-magically makes Willa the mayor of New York, at which point Willa completely transforms the ailing city, but then finds her unruly power (i.e. the Golem, run amok) must be reigned in, at which point she has to destroy the Golem, who is also sort of her daughter, the end.
That’s the essential thread of the plot, though the play as it presents itself feels more concerned with a roach-inclusive book group and the social dynamics of an ant colony, more interested in depicting dreams of James Dean and songs about how “Before I came so hard / I became me,” more gleeful when watching the Golem lick a stapler, than when it’s simply depicting plot.
As a result, the play takes on a strange shape: the scenes — often short, always funny — tend to skip over what in a more conventional dramaturgy would form the “meat” of the experience. Willa’s path to power in New York Politics? Happens in a line of text. The complete overhaul of New York, such that all species become members of the electorate with equal rights? Happens in between scenes, mostly uncommented on. The stuff we think this play should be “about” doesn’t happen on the stage.
As such, the primary “action” of the play exists in the gaps between what’s seen and spoken. In this way, though it looks like a play, Willa behaves more like a poem.
In those gaps, something more important than a plot: a grappling with nothing less than life and death. As Clair tells us, in a framing narration that blurs the line between author and character, she wrote the play as her father was terminally ill, and while she herself was considering getting pregnant. Ending and making life — how can one’s ambitions to live “authentically,” or be mayor of whatever, ever compare in importance?
And yet, these big issues — and they don’t get much bigger, folks — live in the interstices of the play. They hide behind the curtain, poking their little antennae out from time to time, watching the action on stage, laughing and crying at once. Clair’s dramaturgy of gaps allows these shadow themes — which are, it seems to me, her primary concern in the piece — to shine in their mostly unarticulated absence.
I left the theater delighted, but also mulling over existential questions, not exactly sure why. Clair brings these questions to mind without fanfare, without indication. It’s a subtle provocation, but a deep one.
Add to all that the sheer force of will it must have taken to make this play (which, did I mention, had seven actors and a giant furry egg?), and an even more complicated story emerges, about how a person manifests a complicated, messy dream amidst mortality.
And then there’s the performances. This is why we need the downtown, people! The cast is peculiar and uniformly excellent. Lisa Clair as Willa is compact juggernaut — on stage nearly the entire show, carrying the emotional heft of the play, straight man and wise guy at once, sporting some killer outfits, including a remarkably pink suit. The great Juliana Francis-Kelly as the Golem is unforgettably brilliant — a horrifying and hilarious creature with a neon orange face and three-foot tall hair, she moves with the peculiarity of somebody who has never seen a person walk before, electric and on fire and absolutely can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her from the moment she bursts forth from that giant furry egg, a titanic performance in an intimate space. Hanlon Smith-Dorsey gamely inhabits among the worst on-stage boyfriends I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, sporty vest and all, then jumps between a smattering of other supporting, comic roles, each alive, specific, and deeply entertaining. Dee Dorcas Beasnael is fierce and show-stealing as the Queen Ant, delivering a doozy of a late-play monologue about the shape of new New York. Sauda Aziza Jackson, whom I also loved in Clair’s previous The Making of King Kong, is subtle and hilarious as Willa’s office manager and co-book-group-er. And Nicholas Sanchez exudes the sex and cool of the late, great James Dean, even when sporting the aforementioned giant head. Add Jeremy Kadetsky as a misunderstood, lonely roach — what more could you ask for?
And then there’s the design, fabulous, top to bottom. Caitlin Ayer (Lead Production design), with Yijun Yang (associate scenic design), Emily White (associate costume design), Red (associate props and media design), has made a true achievement of production design, every element of it larger-than-life, with more “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” design elements than one might see in an entire season of uptown theater. John Gasper, true to form, nails the sound design, and Mary Ellen Stebbins lights the show beautifully (including an absolutely lovely final tableau of fireflies).
I would be remiss not to praise Shannon Sindelar, under whose skillful direction this gigantic monster of a play has emerged, fully realized and finely tuned, in this independent, off-center space.
Why is such quality work, with so many artists operating at the top levels of craft, not better supported in this world? Willa, where are you? The city budget needs to be reorganized!