Monday, August 1, 2016

"Hearts of Palm"

Hearts of Palm
Patricia Milton

Frieda de Lackner as Vi & John Patrick Moore as Strap
On the Southeast Asia island of Marititu, two corporate-type women ready themselves for negotiations with the locals over acquiring major land plots for their mega-company, Empire Holdings.  They do so by trading personal jabs about who is and is not qualified enough to sit at the table.  Recently transferred from Media to Negotiations, Vi argues to the more senior Brittany that she knows pressure as recently proven when she received “bags and bags of hate mail written in crayons” from furious Brownies wanting palm oil out of their Girl Scout cookies.  The two reach an uneasy truce, agreeing that their negotiated settlement with the islanders for land must meet the criteria of being environmentally clean and no displacement of residents.  That the two possible plots for sale each negate one of those must-haves only gives their reluctant handshake more squeezed pump.

So begins Patricia Milton’s latest play, Hearts of Palm, now in its world premiere at Berkeley’s Central Works.  What seems to start as a serious play that immediately raises questions about big, global companies coming in to non-developed countries and leveling both forests and villages for big profits soon begins to shift in tone.  When the native negotiator arrives, she explains that it is local custom to express regret not from one’s heart, but to apologize from one’s backside.  (Huh?)  New corporate members arrive on the scene unexpectedly -- one being a sleazy guy named “Strap” with eyes and hands that wander to Vi’s back side (but not to express regret) and one being a snarling woman from Human Resources swaggering about in dark glasses and toting a sidearm. 

As the shift to full-out farce quickens, more and more issues that are potentially serious topics for a play are plopped on the table:  corporate greed in a global economy, global warming, stereotypes of Islamic people, terrorism, sexism and male-assumed dominance within the corporate setting.  At the same time, the staged situations and the characters before us become more and more like those seen in cartoons or B-rated summer blockbusters.  Unfortunately, the result is a play that is an oft-over-the-top parody of so many different aspects of the current corporate, political, and social realms that messages get mixed up, intertwined, and finally mired in comedic attempts that are more often just silly rather than funny and effective.

Frieda de Lackner is the rapid-talking Vi whose intensity to make points is accentuated by hands that move almost as fast and furious as her tongue.  Widowed recently when her husband (also a negotiator at Empire) was in a suspicious jeep accident in Uganda (and whose ashes are in her 24-Hour Fitness gym locker ... Don’t ask), she is seeking to honor his memory by becoming the best dealmaker she can be.  Determined to be in charge of these negotiations for outcomes she deems as best, Vi constantly makes moves as if playing a virtual chess game.

Vi also has to contend with Strap, a one-night stand colleague who has traveled across the globe to these jungles hoping for more from her (promising this time to “bring a toothbrush,” “use a bed instead of a table,” and “take off our clothes”).  John Patrick Moore has eyes that rarely leave Vi and a relentless persistence to be in charge of the negotiations, their outcome, and Vi herself.  When the two negotiate with the native representative, he is quick to interrupt, confront with outlandish suggestions, and make side comments as if the local person cannot hear or see him.  Mr. Moore uses a volume of facial ticks and tricks to convey Strap’s lust for power and sex; and he is as much a corporate clown as any parody could ever want.

Erin Mei-Ling Stuart at Brittany
Vi’s initial internal competitor, Brittany, disappears by Scene 2 (following a bombing of the company’s local office) and is feared dead or kidnapped. Erin Mei-Ling Stuart later returns as Brittany in a Patty Hearst fashion (with Mace can rather than shotgun), tattooed and bearing a headband, now a member of the local, indigenous farmer rebels.  Her Brittany is aggressive in tone and stance, full of fast words, and a caricature of the “white savior” who has decided to save the natives from her fellow, country invaders. 

Michelle Talagrow as Ni-Bethu
Also at the negotiating table is Ni-Bethu, played with stealth and sarcasm by Michelle Talgarow.  In full South Sea Islander dress (thanks to Tammy Berlin’s designs), Ni-Bethu is not about to take any crap from these Americans and lets them know in no uncertain terms that she has studied their corporate ways and has also been to Harvard (something which each has made a claim to at one time or another in their back-and-forth one-up-man-ship).  While her own motives for profit are in constant suspicion by the others, there is something deeper going on behind that expressionless, noble face; and there is something happening between her and the other two women at the table, with Strap having no clue to the subtle and obvious clues and notes passing among them.

The most bizarre of all these characters is Helen, the Red-Bull-chugging HR (Human Resources) woman from hell.  Somewhere, sometime, the playwright must have had one of Alexander’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days with an HR person.  Jan Zvaifler’s Helen has rope and rubber pipe in hand to deal with an employee performance issue, a meeting she seems to anticipate with bated breath.  She talks on walkie-talkie to security forces she commands who blow up jeeps and buildings.  Helen is an ex-Marine who has never given up the uniform and walks around as if in full command of a war zone, which she is fast trying to insure Marititu will be.

One of the biggest challenges Gary Graves has as director, I believe, is to make this farce work in a very intimate, conference room space, surrounded on three sides by just a couple rows of audience.  In my opinion, some distance between setting, cast, and audience might help the comedy/farce be played out in ways that would make it funnier versus just ridiculous.  While the situations, script, and acting do elicit some laughter, there is not the response one would expect from such outlandish exaggerations of corporate processes, procedures, and so-called professionals.  It is too often difficult to ascertain if what is happening is now a serious side of the play with meaning and message we are to take away or is it just another moment of parody and maybe we should laugh.

But such is the nature of world premieres.  Risks are well worth it when introducing a new work, and with its fifty-second original play now on its stage, no company knows or revels more in that fact than Central Works.

Rating: 3 E

Hearts of Palm continues in extension through August 21 in a world premiere by Central Works at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 510-558-1381. 

Photos by Patricia Milton

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