Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Sagittarius Ponderosa"

Sagittarius Ponderosa
MJ Kaufman

Matthew Hannon & SK Kerastas
Transitions are many and messy in most of our lives.  The changes that start a transition from what was to what will be often happen to us, not by us; but even those we initiate, we rarely control the pace or the intensity.  In MJ Kaufman’s new play, Sagittarius Ponderosa, receiving its world premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center, transitions abound for a multi-generational family of four.  An unwanted change in abode to live once again with parents, losing one’s battle with a disease and others losing a loved one, falling in love both early and late in life, losing a new-found love, moving somewhere along the continuum from female to male – These are just some of the transitions that form a perfect storm for a mother, father, daughter/son, and grandmother.  Even one of grandest trees on earth that resides in a forest outside the family’s house, an Oregon Ponderosa, faces unwanted changes due to climate shifts.  How much these transitions are recognized and dealt with openly and honestly is a large part of what we watch in the seventy minutes of the life slice we surround in an arena set-up.  With touches of mysticism and symbolism, with a setting in both the physical and the spiritual worlds, and with the use of silent isolation of individuals intermingled with intense couplings, MJ Kaufman’s script is at times enlightening and at times confusing, at times engrossing and at times curiously stagnant, at times a success and at times more like a play still in workshop.

SK Kerastas is twenty-nine-year-old Archer, still known as Angela by his family, who has come back home begrudgingly to live (for reasons unknown to us).  Dressed in masculine attire of slouchy shirt, tight jeans, and boots and with cropped hair, walk exaggerated in swagger, and long purple-checkered handkerchief hanging from his back pocket, Archer is clearly uncomfortable at home and with his current state of life, not willing to out himself (even when each parent gives him a clear opportunity).  Neither the actor nor the script help us get to know Archer well enough to understand the whys.  SK Kerastas underplays Archer in an admiring manner, letting subtleties rule; but there is also such vagueness of most outward emotions and inner thinking that much is left to audience hypothesis and wondering.

The closest we come to seeing Archer as a feeling, interacting, reacting person is when he meets Owen, a deep-voiced, woodsy hunk who immediately comes on to Archer, first taking note of his hanging handkerchief and overall looks.  “Wanna fuck?” is almost the first words from his mouth after a few niceties; but that brashness does not at all define the kind-natured, deep-feeling Owen that Matthew Hannon so ably portrays.  Clearly he and Archer have not only the hots for each other but also a symbiotic relationship.  What is not clear in the script or direction, perhaps on purpose, is whether Owen has fallen for a masculine girl taking on a boy’s name, a person he believes is by birth male, or someone he clearly knows is transgender. 

Andy Collins is Archer’s dad, Robert, a man we are told is morbidly sick but who actually looks and mostly acts quite healthy.  He is kind in spirit, seemingly on to Archer’s transition but without actually naming it aloud, and is a troubled man contemplating alone during sleepless nights the transition he is about to make.  He also purposefully and proudly changes his name, perhaps to model to no avail to Angela that such a switch can be done in the family.  (Later, Mr. Collins doubles as an octogenarian friend and suitor of Archer’s Grandma in a manner that is fun and note-worthy by both him and Puppet Designer Dave Haaz-Baroque.)

Michaela Greeley is delightful as the deaf and devious Grandma of Archer (mother of Robert).  She brings a spry, bouncy energy to a woman who stubbornly ignores that her grandchild is not that girly and instead plots how to marry her off to a friend’s grandson.  The playwright includes a rather long pause in overall action as Grandma concocts a love potion, the details of which seem overdone for an otherwise short play where much else is left to imagination.  The potion does work for Grandma but in ways she does not intend, sending her into a life transition she at first resists but then embraces wholeheartedly.

Archer’s Mom is given the least of attention by MJ Kaufman, and thus Janis Delucia does not have much opportunity to shine in this part.  Mom is sullen, worried, and sad due to Robert’s condition; and she in a mutual tug-of-war with Archer (aka to her as Angela), although not much is developed as to the whys and wherefores of their tensions.  It feels in the end we mostly get to watch Ms. Delucia in various states of sleep – and how much can an actor do with that?

Two real strengths of the production are the set and the direction.  Christian V. Mejia cleverly creates several distinct settings in the small space provided, including a snowy, majestic Ponderosa pine and a bedroom that illustrates the uneasy, uncomfortable states of the transition of the play.  Ben Randle has taken a script that in my mind still has many issues and has underlined some of its strengths by the pace and the pauses employed.  For example, several times simultaneous scenes occur of the four family members alone in their struggles of anticipated or present transitions they face, pointing out without words how lonely dealing with change can be.

James Ard also shores up the story and atmosphere with scene setting musical compositions and sound design.  Anthony Powers has a strong lighting design, and Miriam R. Lewis’s costumes communicate powerfully the personalities and idiosyncrasies of each person.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this new play is that it is too abbreviated.  There is not enough attention and time given to character development and to revelation of motive of both each person’s actions and inactions.  On opening night, I also personally had several conversations with audience members who were quite confused and/or had developed totally different scenarios from each other of what was really going on.  While some differing interpretations are expected and can be fine for any play, I think the gray areas of this particular script go overboard.

Congratulations to New Conservatory Theatre Company for staging yet another in a long series of world premieres of LBGT-oriented plays, especially producing a play focusing on the “T.”  The fact that it does not totally work in its nascent form does not mean it is not worth the risk of viewing as long as the viewer comes knowing all is not yet perfect.

Rating: 2 E

Sagittarius Ponderosa continues through February 28, 2016, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photo by Lois Tema

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