"Mascara": A play too thick and messy to work Robert Hurwitt
There isn't much hope for humanity in Mascara, the new play by Rodrigo and Ariel Dorfman that opened Friday at the Julia Morgan Theater. There isn't much else of interest either - intellectually or theatrically - except as an example of a project gone terribly awry. And that can't be very good news for the Shotgun Players, Patrick Dooley's ever-ambitious little troupe that has stretched its resources considerably to put up this high-profile premiere.
Ariel Dorfman is, after all, the Chilean author of "Death and the Maiden," which enjoyed considerable success as a play in London in 1991 and on Broadway two years later, not to mention as a Roman Polanski film. Rodrigo Dorfman is his son, author of several screenplays with his father and director of a small theater company, the Andy Tarhole Players, in Durham, North Carolina.
Mascara, adapted by father and son from Ariel Dorfman's novel of the same name, is the first new Dorfman play since Death and the Maiden. And this production is its English-language premiere, following a staging earlier this year in Germany. For the occasion, the six-year-old Shotgun, which just a few months ago made a big move from the basement of a north Berkeley pizza parlor to a new 120-seat south Berkeley theater, engaged the much bigger, 430-seat Julia Morgan.
Unfortunately, neither the Dorfmans, nor director Heather Cappiello, nor the company have covered themselves with glory. The production is almost as flat and inept as the script, and the script is a total mess. An unusually handsome printed program (graphic design by Benjamin Lovejoy) is the sole grace note.
The story is an attempt at take-no-prisoners social satire set in a semi-futuristic society. Michael Frassinelli's bulky, multi-level set and Christine Cilley Stacy's tailfin-lapel costumes make clever use of old-fashioned "World of Tomorrow" design themes, though with a distinctly low-rent look. Occasional family-memory flashbacks are costumed in black and white, with samples from old sitcom themes mixed in Luther Bradfute's generic industrial electronic score.
It's a fantastical society where image has become so important that a plastic surgeon, Doctor Mavirelli (Brian Keith Russell in one of the evening's smoother, more focused performances), has become a major power broker - in part because he's responsible for altering the face of the Governor (Dooley as an overplayed caricature of a cowboy-style Texan) to suit this week's campaign theme.
The doctor's prime enemy, though he doesn't know it, is Emme - as in M-E, get it? - (an intense, at times febrile Bobby Weinapple). Emme is a man with a face so undistinguished that no one can remember who he is, though the Dorfmans push the concept overboard by asking us to believe that he can become invisible just by moving to one side. He's also a photographer, using his invisibility to get shots that enable him to blackmail everybody in town.
That's easy enough, because it seems that everybody has something to hide - most of it sexual (we see him catch the doctor in a negligee enjoying a tryst with the help of a transparent dildo and a strategically placed tulip) and much of it involving child molesting. A sleazy lawyer named Tristan (Dooley as a smarmy opportunist) and the doctor's secretary, Maya (a forceful Patty Silver) are among Emme's blackmail-driven pawns - and, no, all the symbolic names don't bear much thinking about.
Meanwhile, there's also a young woman with two realities. Oriana is a mini-skirted amnesiac who thinks she's four years old, played with alternating bratty little girlishness and aggressive sexuality by Marin Van Young. Oriana 2 (a stolid Beth Donohue) is her invisible alter ego. They collect memories. Oriana gets close to people - apparently seducing many of the men - and gets them to tell their stories, which Oriana 2 collects. Then they kill that person and move on to the next.
Collecting their memories means owning their souls. The Orianas own some 999 souls at this point, which is upsetting to the supernatural power (a kind of Wicked Witch of the West voice) that oversees the recycling of souls. So she's sent two agents (the inept wannabe comic duo of John Pirruccello and Ryan Gowland) to kill Oriana. Oriana takes refuge with Emme, and they fall in love, much to the distress of Oriana 2.
This is important, you see, because part of the cause of Emme's invisibility was his rejection by a grade-school sweetheart (Justine Turner as another bratty little girl). Which seems to be why he has to fall in love with a mental four-year-old, and why their relationship is the good kind of pedophilia (either metaphoric or psychological) as opposed to all the bad pedophilia. Unless, of course, it's supposed to be a joke.
It's hard to tell. The dialogue is so wooden and the characters so one-dimensional that I couldn't distinguish between what was supposed to be funny and what serious, despite the extent to which many of the metaphors are pounded home. The problem with the Dorfman's "Mascara" is less how heavily it applies itself than how badly its ideas and aspirations are smeared.
Emme's the forgettable man with a camera that captures his subjects' deepest secrets. Oriana, half-child and half- adult, stores people's memories inside her head just before they die.
In Rodrigo and Ariel Dorfman's Mascara, a taxing sci-fi melodrama that opened its U.S. premiere run over the weekend at Berkeley's Julia Morgan Theatre, the two are made for each other.
Thanks in good part to Bobby Weinapple's eerie performance as Emme, the love story builds a strange fascination in this ambitious Shotgun Players production. But it's a strained and unengaging night at the theater for much of the way, as Mascara loads on political and metaphysical baggage the play can't support.
Based on a novel by the Chilean exile writer Dorfman, best known for the play and film ``Death and the Maiden,'' this father-son script pits the anonymous Emme against a master plastic surgeon. Brian Keith Russell plays Dr. Mavirelli, whose clients include a crooked cowboy governor (Patrick Dooley) given to weekly treatments at the Happy Face Clinic. Emme wants to enlist the doctor to deform his enemies, while Mavirelli craves Emme's gift of a forgettable face.
Like Death and the Maiden, this piece raises themes of terrorism, political and personal morality and identity. But Mascara's 46 short scenes and discordant styles don't cohere and build. Blackmail schemes, a pair of bumbling goons (John Pirruccello and Ryan Gowland), cartoonish flashbacks to Emme's past and Dr. Mavirelli's sinister chamber provide ample events to little cumulative effect. It's not for any lack of effort in Heather Cappiello's production. The multiple plot lines loop together on Michael Frassinelli's complex, multi-location set. A porthole- shaped door and mysterious turbine suggest a cutaway of Captain Nemo's submarine. Blurps of electronic music and TV sitcom themes supply loose connective tissue.
Mascara stakes out its characters with simplistic strokes and some dauntingly wooden dialogue. The child-like Oriana (Marin Van Young) gets a scolding double (Beth Donohue) as her adult conscience. The doctor is a cardboard creep, with his lurid smoking jackets and cheap motel hooker. The normally able Russell never finds a way inside this concoction.
Give Weinapple credit for fighting the play's odds. When the two Orianas set out to seduce the wolfish Emme, his hunted look dissolves into tender vulnerability. His love scene with a babbling 4-year-old is improbably touching, as the play's metaphor about love's capacity to merge and blur identities takes on flesh-and-blood reality.
Mascara picks up some momentum after intermission, as Emme, Oriana and Dr. Mavirelli head for a final confrontation. Weinapple makes the most of Emme's brave decision to submit to the doctor's knife. Anesthetized, he registers a terrifying panic with nothing but his eyes.
But Mascara proves persuasive only in isolated moments. The characters are woodenly fashioned and weighted down with unplayable lines. Inconsistencies that might be dramatically intriguing are merely convenient. Emme seems invisible as well as forgettable at times. Oriana is able to turn her 4-year-old demeanor on and off.
The Shotgun Players aimed for a big target here. For the most part, unfortunately, Mascara misses the mark.
Ideas Masked as Drama
Mascara had its "North American premiere" on the same weekend Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London for outrages committed under his dictatorship in Chile. This is more of a coincidence than it seems. Ariel Dorfman wrote Death and the Maiden to protest the Pinochet regime, and that searingly violent play made him world-famous as a politically engaged playwright-in-exile. Now his son, Rodrigo -- who went to UC Berkeley -- has adapted Dorfman pere's novel Mascara for the stage, and handed its North American premiere to the Shotgun Players, which was a coup in itself for the company.
The play is a science-fiction voyage through the convolutions of human identity (mascara means "mask"), featuring a pompous plastic surgeon, a cowboy politician, a woman stuck at the mental age of 4, her adult conscience, and a man who can turn invisible at will but is sick of not being noticed. The overwrought story keeps things busy onstage, and the production has an elaborate '60s-futuristic set with a spinning fan and dry ice.
But the wispy thread of coincidental connection to Pinochet turns out to be the most interesting part of the show.
The woman with the 4-year-old mind is an amnesiac "memory thief": Oriana takes in, and promptly forgets, the memories of other people. She falls in love with Emme, the faceless man, who steals around invisibly snapping pictures of people that reveal their ugliest innermost selves. His pictures of the plastic surgeon, for example, show Dr. Mavirelli in bed with a dildo-wearing whore. Mavirelli is famous, overbearing, egotistical -- everything Emme isn't -- and when Emme tries to blackmail him with the photographs, Mavirelli tries to ruin Emme by corrupting his lawyer. In the meantime, two hapless angels of death chase Oriana because of the memory she's absorbed from a dead woman -- and if all this sounds complicated, it's made worse by the fact that the play's motivating forces derive from a weighty metaphysics, instead of believably human trouble. All the aspects of identity dealt with by the Dorfmans -- ego, memory, nonbeing, love -- whack you in the face like a heavy volume of Schopenhauer, with none of his lightness or charm.
Not that the play is badly acted. Sometimes performances sag under the pressure of trying to stoke emotion that isn't there, but Brian Keith Russell elegantly plays the Mavirelli as a blustery blowhard; Bobby Weinapple is a weirdly malevolent Emme; Marin Van Young and Beth Donohue counteract each other nicely as the child and adult halves of Oriana. It's just that the story can't help but sprawl, and instead of being whimsical, it feels crucified by its own ideas.