Monday, March 12, 2018

El Nino (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The term "El Nino" refers to part of the weather cycle in the Pacific Ocean which impacts coastal areas all along the west coast of the Americas (as well as elsewhere).  A quick check of Wikipedia notes scientific belief such events go back thousands of years, with at least thirty happening since 1900.

Justin Tanner named his play El Nino presumably as a very neat metaphor.  Essentially the weather becomes more erratic and in the Los Angeles area (where the play takes place) more storms erupt.  A better description of the family at the heart of this show would be tricky to imagine!

Credit: John Perrin Flynn
Colleen (Maile Flanagan) begins watching cartoons and eating cereal in her parents' living room.  Overweight and middle-aged, she doesn't seem willing to leave even when her father Harvey (Nick Ullett) and especially her mother June (Danielle Kennedy) hint/suggest/order her to get out. She reveals in spitting rage her boyfriend kicked her out and that she quit her job as an uber driver because it gave her back problems.  Yeah, Colleen is pretty foul-mouthed and full of excuses as well as reasons.  Interestingly, that first scene sets up the rest of the play extremely well.  We think we know what is going on, but not quite.  It feels as if the story is a certain kind, but it proves not to be.  What we get as it goes on is more complex and far more moving.

Soon enough we meet the other characters, including the younger daughter Andrea (Melissa Denton) an opinionated dynamo just returned from a trip to Morocco with a strong distaste for all things Moroccan and a new boyfriend, fellow unhappy tourist and veterinarian Todd (Jonathan Palmer), who "never would have gone" to Morocco if he knew it was 95% Muslim.  Plus of course Kevin (Joe Keyes) the next door neighbor with a very sick, old cat.  The stuff of a zany family sitcom, right?

Credit: John Perrin Flynn
Yeah, and no not at all.  Yeah, funny.  Often hilarious.  But more, very human and troubling and complex and very moving.  Like much good drama, this play in many ways revealed important facets of the characters, rendering them equal parts disturbing yet also very human.  In fact their humanity was so perfectly on point I often felt like an invisible voyeur in their lives.  The amazing technical realism of the set, the weather and even the way sets were re-set between scenes increased the impact.

For example, we learn Colleen is a published science fiction author with a severe case of writers' block.  While her family decries her pain as simply being overweight, her doctors disagree and interestingly Kevin once had one of her own ailments and recognizes it. Her ex-boyfriend Toby turns out to have been physically abusive.  Plus we get to see her mother respond to her husband's severe attack as nothing but gas, at first even refusing to call 911 even when Colleen suggests it and Harvey is literally crawling on the floor.  He has a kidney stone, it turns out.  No wonder he literally screams in pain.

Credit: John Perrin Flynn
Which doesn't change the fact Colleen lashes out at nearly anyone, that she radiates anger and prone to self-destructive behavior. Or that her parents actually seem to have a really good marriage in pretty much every way.

Likewise we learn Audrey has an autistic son, and struggles to be a good mom to him. Her new boyfriend Todd is thoughtlessly arrogant, ignorant while blissfully certain, yet shows amazing patience and a startling if blase compassion. Honestly the nuances drew me in further and further, with all the characters just increasingly human and (slightly different) humane.

I cannot say the ending is happy, because no doubt the vagaries of storm and calm lie in wait, but also because it doesn't feel like an ending at all.  It feels like the start of a new chapter in these people's lives, most especially Colleen who perhaps needs it the most.  She even begins to write a new book, with a title perfect the way sometimes little things in life are.  Colleen calls it El Nino.

Honestly, kudos to the entire cast and crew, including director Lisa James, for growing this gorgeous flower of a play, complete with thorns.  This marks the second show I've seen by Rogue Machine and I continue to be very impressed!

El Nino plays Saturdays and Mondays at 8:30pm, Sundays at 3pm until April 22, 2018 at the MET 1089 North Oxford Street (east of Western and Santa Monica Blvd), Los Angeles CA 90029.

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