Monday, May 22, 2017

Pablo Capra | "Theater in the Merry-Go-Round" (on James Harris's An Illegal Start)

theater in the merry-go-round
by Pablo Capra

James Harris (author), Paul Sand (director) An Illegal Start / Santa Monica Public Theatre, in the Santa Monica Pier Merry-Go-Round / The performance I saw was on Friday, May 19, 2017

Pete (Cameron Tagge) and Robbie (Irish Giron)

Watching a play in the 1920s merry-go-round of the Santa Monica Pier has to be one of the most uniquely wonderful theater experiences in Los Angeles. The painted horses and carnival architecture immediately inspire viewers to be transported to another world.

In the case of An Illegal Start by James Harris, that other world is a small town in 1980s Colorado, where two high school boys are beginning an unlikely friendship.

Pete Wilson lives a life of good fortune. He has just survived a serious car accident with only minor injuries, an inexpensive ticket, and no censure from his middle-class parents. He dreams of moving to Los Angeles to become an actor and writer.

Robbie Zamora is less fortunate. He was knocked out in the accident (and would have died if he hadn’t been wearing an army helmet), resulting in a concussion that causes him to hear the voice of his dead grandmother. He lives in an impoverished minority neighborhood in a floodplain, and crudely describes what his parents would have done to him if he’d been driving. His only aspiration is to stay in his hometown and become a fireman.

Several years pass between each scene, visualized by the spinning of the merry-go-round, and possibly reminding us of the philosopher Boethius, who cautioned not to trust the fickle wheel of fortune. At first, the difference in the two boys’ fortunes only seems to increase. By the middle of the play, Pete is accepted at UCLA, while Robbie enlists in the Air Force and may have to go to war. But while writer James Harris has us worrying about Robbie, he cleverly distracts us from the signs that Pete is really the one in trouble.

Pete’s minor injuries from the accident linger as a ringing in his ears. He becomes increasingly dependent on alcohol. His date with his high school crush goes nowhere. In contrast, Robbie’s injuries heal quickly. He outgrows his youthful drinking. He becomes so popular with the girls that he takes three dates to the prom.

By the end of the play, their reversals of fortune are obvious. Robbie returns from the Air Force unharmed. He has traveled. He has married. He has his own business as a contractor (while also indulging his childhood dream by becoming a volunteer fireman). Meanwhile, Pete works at the same bar he’s been at forever, with no career or romantic prospects. His alcoholism leads him to a point of crisis where he almost dies in the hometown he was determined to escape.

What happened?

Finally the play reveals what it’s really about: having the courage to follow your dreams. Pete began as a dreamer but took no meaningful action (perhaps that was “the illegal start” that led to his downfall). Instead he waited at his bar for a customer to give him a part in a movie.

Robbie’s dream may not have been to go into the Air Force, but it was a way forward, and he took it. Pete is confounded by Robbie’s decision until it is finally explained. Robbie confesses that he joined the Air Force to not betray the dreamer that Pete was, making Pete aware of how he has betrayed himself.

"I thought you really had it together, Pete. You spoke as though you had all wisdom, and I bought every word of it. You had the guts to leave everything behind. To do things your own way." 

By going into the Air Force, Robbie demonstrated that he had the guts to fight for the life he wanted.

Irish Giron as Robbie is full of energy, quick to laugh, and extroverted, filling the room with his assertive presence. Cameron Tagge as Pete is understated and brooding. He simmers throughout, then delivers an explosive release of emotions. Both actors show off athletic talents, leaping over railings and performing handstands.

James Harris’s lean descriptions effortlessly conjure up the various time periods of his play: the ‘80s Reagan Depression, the ‘90s Gulf War, and the optimistic turn-of-the-century. During this long span, he creatively makes drama out of letter writing and journal entries to maintain the characters’ connection.

Director Paul Sand has the actors constantly interact with the merry-go-round. They push it, ride it, run on it, and count the horses—while pointing out that there’s also a pig and a goat! He transforms the challenges of the non-theatrical space into the most memorable parts of the staging. An encounter with a police officer is imagined through an open window, and a support column becomes an indispensable prop for the actors. It’s clear that he’s getting the most fun out of directing a play in a merry-go-round.

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