Of Serpents and Sea Spray
|Heren Patel, Maria Leigh, Laura Domingo & Maria Giere Marquis|
“Many years ago, in a land faraway there lived a winged horse named Pegasus.” With those few words, a little girl’s imagination opens up a world where she has hunted giants in Chile, ridden on the back of the fabled horse over the Great Wall of China, and been knighted by the goddess Athena to pursue a holy quest. Custom Made Theatre presents its commissioned world premiere of Rachel Bublitz’s Of Serpents and Sea Spray, revealing to audiences the very real world of young Iro St. Cloud who has found that the thrill of dangerous adventures involving pirates, French circus performers, and inhabitants of Mt. Olympus can help her escape memories that are too horrible to face head on.
Iro, self-proclaimed as “the greatest hero the world has ever seen,” is fully alive as a bundle of unbridled energy when she enters the world inside a book or inside her vivid imagination. She plots grand schemes and travels the globe with her imaginary friend Annika and has a spirit of bravado that is contagious for us as audience but is a source of mimicry and derision for the foster family with whom she now resides. When their world becomes hers, the live wire we see dulls to sullen, pouty, curled-up ball of defiance. As we watch her swing from her playful realms of high escapades to a reality around her that is exaggerated in her eyes in its evilness and stupidity, we become increasingly aware that something traumatic has happened to Iro in her still-short life that somehow must inevitably be revisited. The more she attempts incredible escapes from the reality around her of parents who exist now only in her memory, of an uncle’s abandonment, or of a foster family she never wanted, the closer she is drawn to read newspaper headlines that keep following her wherever she goes.
Maria Leigh is Iro the Hero and never leaves any doubt in our mind that she is in fact somewhere in the pre-adolescent age range. Her every move, squeal, tumble, and facial expression is that of a girl probably a third of Ms. Leigh’s real age. The emotional range she shows is as wide and wonderful as Iro’s fantastic ability to dream her own stories of life-and-death battles, bosom-buddy companions, and flights into the stratosphere. She is matched by the fun and frolic that Maria Giere Marquis brings to the role of Annika, a kind of Jiminy Cricket friend who may only be seen by Iro but is important to Iro with her bits of advice, encouragements, and warnings when she is going a bit too far in her schemes. The two venture together like a Tom and Huck pairing and are the kind of bonded twosome that all of us have at one time or another dreamed of having.
Like the rest of the cast, Ms. Marquis plays several parts – both in the “real world” and in the mind’s eye of Iro. Sabrina de Mio is the suspiciously sweet-talking foster Mother as well as the troubled and sick real Mama of Iro, among other roles. Andrew Calabrese is a bit Janus-faced as he switches from Father in the foster home to Papa in Iro’s memory bank, going from an evil-smiling, bow-tied robot to the warm-hearted pal of his daughter who introduces her to her beloved Pegasus through stories re-read until they are memorized. Mr. Calabrese is also the emotionally clumsy but well meaning Uncle who plays such a big part in Iro’s eventual happy ending. Other roles ranging from menacing foster siblings to crooked circus performers to pirates are played by Laura Domingo and Heren Patel.
As production director, Ariel Craft orchestrates quite masterfully the flow from Iro’s worlds of dreams, memories, and reality. A simple set of trunks and a few pieces of furniture along with a fascinating use of curtained streamers has been constructed by Erik Ladue, enhanced by the lighting and sound schemes of Maxx Kurzunski and Ryan Lee Short. Brook Jennings has created costumes that often seem appropriately right off the pages of a children’s storybook and are evidently easily and quickly changed as actors switch sometimes in only a few minutes from one persona to the next.
The critical issue of this world premiere, as is often the case of any new play, is that there are presently major edits begging to be made, especially in the first half, that would tighten the story, keep the action flowing, and still allow the same emotional build-up to occur. This is especially true with Ms. Bublitz’s introduction of a so-called circus troupe and the sideshow they create that adds nothing to the plot but time. By the end of the first act, there seemed to be among audience a skepticism that fortunately is largely erased with a much tighter, deeper-in-meaning second act. I imagine that in future productions, some of these issues will be corrected.
But in the meantime, there is much to recommend in seeing this imaginative, moving production by Custom Made. Of Serpents and Sea Spray tickles the youth in us and touches us with a story about a little girl who has had to grow up to be a conquering hero all too soon.
Rating: 3 E
Custom Made Theatre Company continues Of Serpents and Sea Spray through January 30, 2016 at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at http://www.custommade.org/box-office-2/ .