Stepping Up

The power -- and limitations -- of good acting over bad writing

Facts are few and far between. We never find out, for instance, where Nena comes from; the most specific description we get of her homeland is "a remote archipelago of tiny islands floating like jewels in the water." We can never be sure if her interpretation of past events is true or false. While all of this undoubtedly serves to make Nena more interesting, the mist that veils the entire play can be counterproductive. For one thing, Hagedorn hints at a number of potentially interesting themes -- including displacement, the effects of war, and troubled or broken family bonds -- but never really goes anywhere with them. For another, the prevailing mood of indistinctness is rudely shattered on at least two occasions when Hagedorn rather clumsily reveals deep, dark secrets about Nena only to forget about them (again) and let them slip back into the fog.

Drifters and Grifters: Tina Huang (as a pole 
dancer) and Sean San José (as a homeless 
man) avoid cliché.
Jeff Fohl
Drifters and Grifters: Tina Huang (as a pole dancer) and Sean San José (as a homeless man) avoid cliché.

Rather than a stairway to heaven, the effect is more like one of Dutch artist M.C. Escher's pictures of a staircase going nowhere. With so little to back up the seemingly random actions of the characters, it's hard to believe in them. The cast does a beautiful job of giving form to the indistinct, but not even their highly intelligent performances can fully repair the missing steps.

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