ASHÉ Shakes Up The Heights

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AsheargumentAs the age-old cat-and-mouse game between New York-based artists and the rent-hiking yuppies who follow in their wake continues, Washington Heights/ Inwood is quickly emerging as a new center of artistic creation. Immortalized in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, this primarily Dominican neighborhood in Manhattan’s uptown area is now home to art spaces, alternative bookshops and a small theater company with a big heart calling itself UP.

With five productions under its belt – improvised in spaces ranging from school auditoriums to Jewish temples – the UP theater company has thus far demonstrated serious dedication to its mission of bringing quality theater to the Washington Heights area.

Their latest production, Ashé, written by recent NYU grad and Nuyorican wunderkind Ricardo Pérez-Gonzalez, follows a familiar formula: twins separated at birth are reunited, but with a catch – one of them needs an organ. While similar plot devices have been employed in everything from NBC’s 30 Rock to The Parent Trap, Pérez-González takes advantage of this sub-genre’s made-to-order thematic reflection on the nature of family to explore themes of spirituality and skepticism with a Nuyorican flair.

Javi, the play’s protagonist, is interpreted with flamboyant bravado by Keith Antone. As revealed in the well-handled and steady flow of backstory sprinkled throughout the script, Javi was plagued by disquieting visions in his adolescence before reluctantly following in his mother’s footsteps to become a Santero. Confronted with a long-lost brother he didn’t know existed, Javi’s journey of acceptance is complicated when said brother, Johnny (an uptight lawyer presumably raised by White non-Latinos and played by Edwin Matos Jr.), reveals that he is dying of kidney failure and desperately needs a donor.

The play’s first act is light and easy, held up by nimble slapstick dialogue that seems to channel Neil Simon’s Odd Couple. Heavier themes of disease and superstition are glossed over as we are introduced to the two principal characters and their respective spouses. Each couple is classically balanced in their personalities and dispositions, and the actors are given ample material to create three-dimensional characters with their own doubts and shortcomings.

Aside from the obvious conflicts arising from such an inherently complicated situation, a large part of the brothers’ differences actually arise from Javi’s practice of Santería, which Johnny haughtily dismisses as superstition despite his wife’s efforts at being culturally sensitive. As this line continues in a wonderfully directed set-piece involving a polite meeting gone terribly wrong, the audience learns that the brothers have in fact been connected by something deep and vaguely supernatural notwithstanding a lifetime of separation.

The writing then takes a lyrical turn, employing poetic metaphors and soul-bearing slam poetry to reveal more depth in each of the four characters – a risky formal wager that is nevertheless handled tastefully and shows us yet another side of this versatile young writer before taking head on the inevitable plot twists set in motion in the first act.

Here is where the play, for all of its good intentions, starts to show some of its dramatic seams. In one somewhat jarring leap, Pérez-González elides a critical six month period in which the characters deepen their friendships and make pivotal dramatic decisions, transporting us rather clumsily to the next dramatically indispensable scene.

Indeed, it seems in the last few scenes that Pérez-González is simply trying to wrap up the play, and while this critic appreciates his decision to subvert some of the conditioned expectations that come along with the genre, the piece’s thematic closure left me wondering what exactly it was that Pérez-González intended to say about the timid triumph of belief over skepticism that we are presented with as the curtain falls.

That being said, director David Mendizábal’s confident direction keeps the ball in the air, so to speak, drawing out the piece’s emotional highs and lows with grace and handling rhythm and dynamics in a way that allows Pérez-González’s masterful use of written dialogue to take flight.

Antone’s performance fits squarely into the all-familiar flamboyant homosexual archetype, but it is done with enough talent and class to avoid falling into gross stereotypes or caricature. Indeed, Antone’s Javi carries the weight of the play on his shoulders with an infectious energy and humor that makes for a thoroughly entertaining theater-going experience. Though, oddly, Javi seems to have the least emotional depth of the four characters, showing a marked lack of vulnerability that straddles a line between strength of character and shallowness, especially given the secret depths revealed in his cohorts as the play develops.

Javi’s partner, Indio, played by Dennis Vargas (Full disclosure: Vargas is my uncle), provides a calm, thoughtful and perfectly weighted counterbalance to Javi’s emotionally-driven impulsivity. As the plot unfolds, Vargas’ Indio stands patiently by his partner’s side, providing support and perspective until switching gears in a dramatically well-timed breaking point that Vargas handles with aplomb.

Javi and Indio’s counterpart is an upwardly-mobile midtown couple comprised of Johnny and his spouse, Kristin. Matos’ interpretation of the uptight, incredulous mid-town lawyer feels a little stiff at first, flirting dangerously with stereotype before redeeming himself around the play’s midpoint in a vulnerable turn that testifies once again to the effectiveness of Pérez-González’s writing.

Even so, Matos’ surly Johnny is nowhere near as dynamic and larger-than-life as his twin brother – a fact that is forgiven when it becomes clear that the real ‘alpha’ in this relationship is his well-intentioned, hyperkinetic and ingratiating spouse, Kristin, played by Lori McNally. Gracefully walking the razor-thin line between insufferable and endearing, McNally shows us that Kristin is the real strength behind this relationship, swallowing her doubts and pushing forward with steadfast conviction in the face of looming tragedy. A character both naïve and astute, McNally’s Kristin proves to be perhaps the most complex and three-dimensional of the quartet – a testament both to actorly craft and effective directing.

Seen as a mere work of dramatic art, Ashé is a worthy play put together by a young team showing confidence well beyond their years, but within the context of this magazine I find it appropriate to celebrate Pérez-González’s matter-of-fact representation of the Puerto Rican experience on the mainland. Issues of race, spirituality and cultural identity specific to the Diaspora are all embedded organically within the drama, avoiding heavy-handed preaching or overtly topical plot devices.

Indeed, perhaps its greatest virtue is that Ashé is a very traditional work of American theater filled with new life by its Puerto Rican Diaspora context, told – perhaps most importantly – with great love and admiration for this culture that unites us all.

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Andrew Stehney Vargas

is a writer, director, producer, actor and proud Nuyorican. A graduate of the International Film and Television School in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, his award-winning short films have been featured at film festivals across the U.S., Latin America and Europe. In his free time, he works in the promotion and distribution of Latin American cinema as Assistant Director of Cinema Tropical.