By Bill Hirschman
King Solomon had it easy. Faced with two women claiming to be an infant’s mother, he only had to threaten to chop the child in two to determine who loved the child most.
But in Christopher Demos-Brown’s shattering world premiere Stripped at Zoetic Stage, the audience faces a more complex dilemma with no villains and no unalloyed winners. At its center is an immigrant who pole dances in a strip club (among other entrepreneurial side-activities) solely to ensure her child’s future. Suddenly, state officials want to strip her of her beloved daughter and give her to a well-heeled loving foster family.
This summary may sound like a ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law & Order (or The Miami Herald) but Demos-Brown and Zoetic dig far deeper. Stripped forces the audience to judge past the surface facets of a case in which it will be impossible to “do no harm.”
Enhanced by Stuart Meltzer’s seamless direction of an A-list cast and an assured career-best performance by Lindsey Corey, local playwright Demos-Brown has rocketed his game once again to an even higher level of craft, but this time with a significantly more profound emotional quotient.
The topic could not be timelier. The Miami Herald has been crammed for years with horror stories in which Florida’s Department of Children and Families and the courts have returned abused children to their abusers, giving primacy to the virtues of “the family unit.” Finally, the state Legislature ordered last session that the child’s welfare be given priority when it is difficult to guarantee their safety in their parents’ care. This play is the flip side of that argument: Sometimes there are legitimate explanations for the litany of red flags that case workers cite in trying to take children away from their parents. The take away: It’s never that simple.
Maria “Masha” Mikhailovich (Corey) is a lovely, sharp-witted young woman who left Belarus to assure her newborn daughter a promising life in America. She found an older man on the Internet to marry her and bring her over, but that became another kind of nightmare.
All but the play’s epilogues are set eight years ago as Masha is supporting the girl by performing various acts in a strip club while they live in a small apartment in the middle of a dangerous ethnic ghetto. Her sometimes live-in boyfriend Zack (Matt Stabile) is a likable but ineffectual ne’er-do-well who is a part-time English teacher but primarily a purveyor of marijuana.
The Masha created by Corey, Meltzer and Demos-Brown is an unapologetic pragmatist who sees illusions such as Santa Claus as being, at best, a waste of time, and at worst, a crippling delusion in dealing with a cold, unforgiving world. Far more intelligent than Zack, Masha does what she does with a hard-nosed acceptance that enables her not to rationalize but to fully accept it as a repugnant price that must be paid.
One of the most stunning scenes occurs as Masha is mechanically gyrating on the pole, her face either impassive or frozen in a false smile. Throughout it and many other scenes, she speaks a passionate narration to Raisa (who is not actually present).
At this moment, Masha tells Raisa of a photo of her grandmother as a child surviving the privations in World War II Russia. While Masha’s torso and limbs pump in a soulless imitation of sex, her voice utters with controlled passion, “When I see your face, I think of her face. And my heart is bursting from pride.” On the word “bursting,” she swings up on the pole and splays her legs wide in an obscene display that counters the beauty of her sentiment, illustrating how she has compartmentalized what she does and who she really is.
But coincidences occur in which Masha unwittingly leaves Raisa alone. Neighbors call in an investigator/lawyer from Child Protective Services, Erica (Makeba Pace). Aghast at the unkempt nature of the apartment, she removes the child before Raisa returns home with groceries.
In another part of the forest, the highly-educated well-off couple Emma (Margot Moreland) and Nicholas (Chaz Mena) are sparring and sparking on a Sunday morning. We learn she has miscarried five times and has applied to be a foster parent, without Nicholas’s blessing. The court places Raisa temporarily with this couple, devastating but energizing Masha’s steely determination.
At one point, Zack tells Erica, “But Masha loves Raisa. Really loves her.” To which Erica replies with the knowledge of a career viewing tragedy, “Love ain’t enough.”
The sides clash in a tense custody hearing in which the edge goes for and against Masha. She says, “It was like being on the pole. Only I have more pride and dignity on the pole than I am having in this courtroom.” Demos-Brown may load the game in Masha’s favor as far as audience sentiment, but no one is the bad guy and everyone has defensible right on their side.
The outcome is not hard to predict, but what happens next may surprise you. Some people may find it a shade over the top; others will find it the perfectly logical next step in the arc.
But this climatic scene is as shocking and heart-rending as you may see this season. In a superb melding of acting, directing and writing, Masha describes Raisa’s birth through a brilliant “coup de theatre” that should stop respiration among the audience members.
The play ends in the present as we see what has happened to all the characters including the precocious Raisa (Ava-Riley Miles).
Demos-Brown layers in a half-dozen other themes, many quite funny, others incisive, especially Masha’s puncturing of the self-satisfied world that Americans have built in the 21st Century. At one point, she tells the absent Raisa of a frat visit to the club, “Fat man-boys in a fat man-boy country. America acts like it is strong and decent and kind. It is soft and stupid and cruel. I will not let you become a soft American idiot. You will know that your grandfathers stopped Hitler from taking the oil fields of Baku.”
Another sub-theme has to do with language. Masha, who is quickly learning English, decries Americans’ sloppy hyperbolic use of the word “amazing.” Later she and Zack have a droll etymological analysis of the various permutations of the word “f***” and its multifarious uses and meanings. By contrast, Nicholas teases Emma for using the word “contretemps” at the height of an angry argument.
There’s also the sense of America being a country of immigrants living side by side. Masha’s state-appointed attorney (also played by Mena) speaks with a pronounced second-generation Cuban accent that collides with Masha’s own Belarussian inflections.
This is the third Demos-Brown world premiere that Meltzer has directed and they seem a seamless team in sync. Meltzer is not a showy look-at-me type. But over time, his style can be spotted, no more so than here. Among his virtues are pacing: the rat-a-tat banter of people in a relationship who know each other’s tropes; the take-a-breath pauses when situations hit a crucial crossroads. He also has a skill for infusing drama with humorous moments; he and Corey make Masha’s blithe skewering of American sloth downright comical.
But we’ve been putting it off long enough. Lindsey Corey. This has been quite a season for veteran local actors finally getting the role they deserved years ago, such as Shane Tanner in Big Fish. And finally, Corey gets her shot.
Corey, known before her recent marriage as Lindsey Forgey, has always been admired for her skills with offbeat comic parts like the zealot in Zoetic’s The Savannah Disputation or hapless naifs such as Janet in Rocky Horror and Hope in Urinetown at Slow Burn Theatre.
But Corey’s Masha, while often funny, is a different animal. She exudes a whip-smart intelligence, a fierce determination, a breathtaking selflessness and a calcified cynicism as a long-justified defense mechanism against a society in which the rules are always changing. Corey makes all these facets completely believable. But blessed with an open-hearted face, she also elicits an audience’s sympathy, loyalty and even admiration. She also has mastered a Cirque du Soleil performer’s repertoire on the pole thanks to choreography from Barbie Lazaro.
The cast is comprised of some of the best talents in the state, each given a meaty part or parts to work with. Makeba Pace, the stunning standout in last season’s Sunset Baby at Primal Forces, is the fiery lawyer trying to wrest the child from what she perceives to be a downright dangerous environment – because she knows abuse from personal experience.
Moreland (who doubles as a judge) and Mena are fine as a couple with a shared history, and Mena, who was so fine in Betrayal last season, doubles as the scruffy lawyer for Masha who develops an razor-sharp cross-examination during the court scene. Stabile is note perfect in his depiction of someone Masha accurately sizes up as a loser. Ms. Miles captures the promise of a hyper-smart youth in her later scenes.
The evening is so overwhelmingly effective that it’s only fair to point out its only weakness. The early character-establishing scene between Masha and Zack, a companion one between Emma and Nicholas, and a penultimate one between Emma and Nicholas, all linger longer than necessary. That third scene is meant to establish a crucial situation that we won’t reveal (although the play could have ended with the climactic scene) but like the other two, we got the essential information early on.
Zoetic long ago earned and once again reaffirms its skill for empowering its creative staff to establish a gloriously theatrical environment. Designer Rebecca Montero paints the set with light to create varied times, places and moods. Estela Vrancovich has nailed the character-revealing costumes.
Meltzer often designs the sound, not because he can’t find anyone, but because he knows exactly how to melds an aural soundscape into the fabric of the play. Especially effective here was the percussion-only soundscape underpinning the custody hearing which significantly increased the on-stage tension like the metallic ratchet of a block and tackle.
But defining excellence above all is the set design by Michael McClain who with little money and meager resources won a Carbonell Award in 2014 for The Timekeepers. Here, with a real budget, McClain just soars. Even before the play’s start, the show curtain is a huge quilt-like American flag hued in nothing but shades of greys and beiges. The characters are dwarfed by towering marble/granite edifices overseen by huge top half of the traditional statue of Justice wearing a blindfold made up of a crumpled American flag. Masha and Emma’s homes are represented by couches set in the massive pans of Justice’s scales. It has to be seen in person, lit by Montero, to be fully appreciated.
While South Florida has been a hothouse for new work and locally-based playwrights for two decades, Demos-Brown has emerged alongside fellow Zoetic founder Michael McKeever as the two high-profile standard-bearers in the region.
His drama When The Sun Shone Brighter about politics in the crucible of Cuban-American Miami was an unqualified success at Florida Stage in 2010. Among his other notable works at Zoetic have included the family dysfunctional play Captiva and the superb look at the need for heroes in Fear Up Harsh which won the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Citation. There have been other works fully mounted, others tested in staged readings and others in various stages of development locally and outside the state. His American Son gets a preliminary try-out at New Theatre next month but will make a full-fledged premiere at the renowned Barrington Stage in Massachusetts in July.
With Stripped, Demos-Brown continues pushing his own boundaries as far as format, structure and tone, but an analyst might see similarities. Even when portraying politicians or slightly off-beat characters, his characters are recognizable three-dimensional human beings caught up in extraordinary situations. Family interactions are a motivating factor, and to some degree they are a victim of stressful situations. Each situation depicted is so contemporary that sometimes they have that ripped-from-the-headlines feel, but the human issues underlying them are timeless.
Demos-Brown’s day job as a lawyer also peeks through in the solid logical construction of his plots and arcs, and the incisiveness of his analytical eye of complex moral issues. .While much of his work seems naturalistic, it is also quietly takes advantage of theatrical conventions without calling attention to them.
While his characters could be undeniably fervid, previously a coolness pervaded the proceedings; his plays are not showy pyrotechnic displays. Even when characters unloose their anger, their dialogue rarely exploded in quotable purple passages; real people don’t do that. But in Stripped, emotions bubble up and pour out as the vise closes in; that resonates deeply with the audience.
Similarly, Zoetic has emerged alongside New Theatre as one of the premier companies premiering new work. Like Florida Stage before it, Zoetic is building a loyal audience who really knows little or nothing about the specifics of what exactly they are going to see on any given weekend; all they know is that the Zoetic brand is a kind of guarantee of a certain level of quality and a type of show they are likely to enjoy.
Incidentally, Zoetic, which has been striving to find ways to get patrons to turn off their cellphones, came up with an especially effective pre-curtain appeal delivered by understudy Daniel Llaca, a Zoetic Stage Young Artist and student at New World School of the Arts. He genially underscored that theater is a communal undertaking with mutual responsibility among the audience members, which in part said, “Together we share this space.” Bravo, Zoetic.
Stripped from Zoetic Stage as part of the Theater Up Close series performs through Nov. 22 in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $50-55. Running time is about 90 minutes with no intermission. (305) 949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.