american (tele)visions at New York Theatre Workshop is less a traditional play and more an aural and visual experience. Writer Victor I. Cazares and director Rubén Polendo have created a piece that exists in the moment you change the channel–that brief second between TV shows, that gap between thoughts. It’s an ambitious experiment, unlike any play I’ve seen before, but it doesn’t pay off in all its gambles.
Erica (Bianca “b” Norwood) lives with her family in the shadow of the first WalMart. WalMart, like America, represents a land of infinite opportunity and abundant capitalism. Her father, Octavio (Raúl Castillo), came to the U.S. illegally and worked to pay coyotes to bring his wife and two children across the border. The play’s collage of scenes looks at what happened after: Erica’s brother, Alejandro, is dead when the play begins, but their mother, Maria Ximena (Elia Monte-Brown), casts Alejandro’s lover, Jesse (Clew), to play him. As the channels flip, the family relives the events surrounding Alejandro’s death, the siblings’ sexual awakenings and gender identities, Octavio’s depression, and Maria Ximena’s abandonment of and liberation from her family in the cab of a truck driver.
The bits and pieces of family history are pasted next to and on top of each other, often switching over after a few seconds. For most of the play, it feels like someone is screaming every thirty seconds, either shouting out above the omnipresent video and audio design (by Kelly Colburn, Alex Hawthorn, and Justin Netsor) or unleashing rage, anguish, or pain. Norwood, in particular, performs at such a heightened level, it feels as if we’re being assaulted by their feelings. But it does capture a kind of teenage hormonal battleground, especially when that teen is wrestling with so much.
Cazares creates a sweet relationship between Erica and her best friend, Jeremy (Ryan J. Haddad). Jeremy fancies himself the grande dame of the Barbie aisle. Erica and Jeremy subvert their assigned gender roles and they swap “girl toys” for “boy toys” when their parents won’t buy them what they actually want. They are two outcasts, both fighting for their lives, leaning on each other for comfort. The relationship comes through from the page, but Norwood and Haddad have no chemistry with each other and the performances don’t add up to a believable friendship. I longed for an easier rapport and a bigger spark between the two to really make that connection come alive.
Cazares and Polendo are not interested in making the play easy or palatable. It’s aggressive and it does what it wants when it wants to do it. The video and audio is layered onto scenic designer Bretta Gerecke’s white box and Richard Serra-inspired rust-cubes, which open to reveal other worlds: the headlights of a truck, a crashed meteor, a living room, the Barbie aisle of WalMart. The pristine whiteness of the outer box suggests the TV studio in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the rusty squares sit within it, hulking and obtrusive, as heavy as the burdens the family carries. When the living room or the WalMart aisle come into view, the play often takes a moment to slow down and depict actual scenes, with people speaking to each other. The rest of the time it’s tortured people trying to keep their head above water, calling out for help. It gets to be overwhelming, but maybe that’s the whole point.
american (tele)visions is certainly bold, and loud, but it’s also too long. The program includes a dramaturgical insert listing 48 “key textual, aesthetic, and theoretical sources that have inspired and informed [the] production.” I have no doubt they all show up somewhere across the play’s 100 minutes. The fragmentary pieces slam back and forth into each other, but their substance becomes repetitive with little story to latch onto and it doesn’t progress its ideas into resolution or acceptance. It doesn’t need to tie everything up with a bow, but after a certain point, the ends of its threads just seem to be flapping in the wind.