Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
As part of NNPN's Rolling World Premiere Network, this play by David Valdes Greenwood is being performed by regional theaters in Tucson, Charlotte and Portland, Oregon as Mermaid Hour. The Remixed in the title at Mixed Blood refers to the play's transition, for this production, to a musical. Artist Director Jack Reuler stated that the play seems, in all aspects, like a Mixed Blood property, but felt that adding music would make the story of a particular family more universal. Having only seen the "remixed" version, I cannot say if that is true or not, but can attest to the show's warmth, wit, authenticity, and the sense that, though the conflicts the family in Mermaid Hour face are not universal, the feelings and convictions that help them pull through as a unit, are.
Vi's parents, Pillar and Bird, are grappling with the issue of hormone therapy to affix their daughter's biological transition from male to female. Pillar, a medical aide studying to be a nurse, knows how to research the medical issues the treatment entails, while Bird, who works two retail jobs to keep the family financially afloat, is concerned about the cost involved. Vi's best friend Jacob is openly gay. The two young people trade confidences, both emotional and physical, the latter of which alarms Jacob's mother Mika, who views herself as very liberal, but decides to limit his interactions with Vi.
Vi seeks solace in a fantasy identity as a mermaida creature neither wholly land nor sea, neither human nor beastnon-binary, like herself. She also finds support from an online site for trans kids called The Mermaid Hour, and decides to enter their contest asking entrants to submit a two-minute video affirming their identity: "Make a movie, make a difference." When Vi's video goes viral, an emotional maelstrom sweeps over all of them, and Vi is left feeling like she has only herself to turn to.
Playwright Greenwood has written a thoroughly believable story with sympathetic characters, authentic dialogue, and turns of events that ring true. Everyone on stage is presented as a person, not a type. Pillar and Bird are busy and stressed by their work and concerns about Vi, so they have carved out a Thursday night family picnic supper, consisting of take-out Chinese food, feasting on a blanket spread before their TV set. It is a very specific element of this family's life, but fully relatable in the way it exemplifies middle-class family struggles in 2018 America. As the narrative progresses, nurturing Pillar and cynical Bird switch parenting roles (with Bird quipping, "Oh, so now I'm the good cop?") as parents often do when they are working their way through uncertain ground.
Eric Mayson's tuneful songs give those themes an even broader reach, opening with a wise and witty description of how we live "In America," and Mika's screed against Pillar, "Little Miss Progressive," depicting our inevitable resorting to pigeon-holing people into ideological baskets, and Vi's ode to a fantasized mermaid existence, embodying a common dream of a life that suits precisely who we are. With Mayson playing keyboards and just bassist Shannon van der Reck and drummer Toby Ram beside him, the score sounds full and vibrant, and songs and book scenes seamlessly flow together.
Mixed Blood has made a point in this production of casting each part with actors whose gender identities match their characters, and all the six cast members shine. Azoralla Arroyo Caballero is a wonderful Vi, displaying the treacherous balancing act of an adolescent with one foot in childhood and one in adulthood, comfortable with her own identity as she struggles with the outside world's response to her. As her mother Pillar, Thallis Santesteban creates a vivid portrait of maternal nurturing carried to a fault. She is a progressive, modern woman, with ties to her Hispanic heritage popping up here and there, and in spite of sometimes pushing too far, is always driven by love for her child. Vi's hip dad Bird is played by Michael Hanna, with a long ponytail and a chiseled sense of irony. Hanna's portrayal at first makes Bird appear to resist an emotional response to his transgender child, until a gripping musical scene in which he describes having to give up his family's tradition of fathers taking sons to Red Sox games at Fenway Park, watching Victor become Vi before his eyes.
Sheena Janson is spot on as Mika, who has learned to accept having a gay son, but erects a wall against having to accept anything more, juggling between fast-changing norms in America and her traditional relatives (all internet connected) in Japan. As Jacob, Meng Xiong is a well-adjusted gay tween (a welcome character on stage) and sweetly supportive of Vi. Catherine Charles Hammond plays the bi-gendered Merperson of Vi's fantasies, as well as Crux, the trans activist who runs the Mermaid Hour website. Hammond conveys a sense of power as the self-assured Merperson, and a calm compassionate dignity as Crux. Hammond also has the strongest singing voice in the cast, making the Merperson's songs especially beautiful.
Leah Anderson's direction smoothly incorporates the book and score, with a focus on the story's straightforward narrative. The staging challenges a bit in having the scenes in Jacob's bedroom and of the Merperson set on platforms behind the audience seating area, causing audience members to crane necks back and forth to locate the action, though by the second act we all seemed accustomed to this. With the exception of Vi's bedroom, set off to one side, the set by Britton Mauk has all the material stuff of Vi's family hanging on the wallthe refrigerator, the sofa, kitchen gadgets, bookshelves, dining room table and chairs, an ingenious display of the mechanical infrastructure of a family. The costumes designed by Valerie St. Pierre Smith include the dazzling, wish-fulfilling mermaid costume worn by Hammond.
Mermaid Hour: Remixed is a warmly moving play, richly enhanced and made more open by its music, though I suspect the un-remixed productions are also satisfying. It addresses an issue whose time has come, the normalization of transgender people in our lives, in a context of a family struggle to face its challenges. This is not a dysfunctional family (thank you, David Valdes Greenwood), but a loving family with strengths and flaws, like most, navigating the shifting tides of social norms, technology, medical advances, and financial straits. Mermaid Hour: Remixed is not only for those directly affected by transgender issues, but anyone striving to keep a family healthy and whole. Heartily recommended.
Mermaid Hour: Remixed, through April 29, 2018, at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. Radical Hospitality tickets are free at the door two hours prior to performances, subject to availability. Guaranteed tickets can be purchased in advance for $25. Access Passes guarantee complimentary seating and transportation for seniors and persons with disabilities and their companions. For guaranteed advance tickets, Access Passes and information about "On Our Own Terms" call 612-338-6131 or visit www.mixedblood.com.
Writer: David Valdes Greenwood; Music and Musical Director: Eric Mayson; Director: Leah Anderson; Set Design: Britton Mauk; Costume Design: Valerie St. Pierre Smith; Lighting Design: Calvin Anderson; Sound Design: Veronica Moreno; Props Design: Randy Wong-Westbrooke; Movement Director: Sarah Lozoff; Technical Director: Trevor Muller-Hegel; Stage Manager: Shelby Reddig; Assistant Stage Manager: Rosemary Hartunian Alumbaugh; Producer: Jack Reuler, Artistic Director.
Cast: Azoralla Arroyo Caballero (Vi), Catherine Charles Hammond (Crux/Merperson), Michael Hanna (Bird), Sheena Janson (Mika), Thallis Santesteban (Pilar), Meng Xiong (Jacob).