By Bill Hirschman
#Graced is an episodic road trip veering all over the place in a theatrically metaphorical jalopy bouncing along on a journey for its protagonists to discover who they are personally and what America is in the 21st Century.
The Zoetic Stage play’s approach is quirky enough that those cemented to conventional storytelling may have trouble connecting to it. But if you are open enough to get on the ride as the writer and director have envisioned it, the experience is alternately humorous, wacky, moving and insightful.
This world premiere is the work of playwright Vanessa Garcia, one of the creators of the repeatedly extended immersive The Amparo Experience. For the first time since Zoetic’s opened in 2010, co-founder Stuart Meltzer has handed over the direction to New Yorker Sarah Hughes and Victoria Collado, also a key to Amparo.
The hashtag in the title is well-justified because the heroine Catherine (an indefatigable and winning Melissa Almaguer) is a 30-something “influencer” journalist of sorts reporting solely on her cellphone and social media. Her screenshots, video and online banter are integrally part of the play, projected on a stage-high screen projecting scrolls, sweeps, her logon #catinsearchofgrace and #manifest destiny.
She and her online editor/sometime lover Lewis (Chris Anthony Ferrer) have gotten advertising funding from his dad, an Argentine-American liquor manufacturer, to travel from Miami to North Dakota in a camper trying to discover what it means to be an American today.
Jack Kerouc’s novel appropriately ends up as a prop. And in a lovely reference that only Boomers will savor is the opening music quotes a snatch of Simon & Garfunkle’s “They’ve all come to look for America.”
They weave through the countryside, snapping and publishing photos on the cellphone. Along the way, they pick up a nun Rosalie (a delightful Dalia Aleman) abandoning her New Orleans convent, and a homeless homeschooled teenager Blake (Sabrin Diehl) in Memphis who is struggling to determine his/her/their sexuality.
Cat and Lewis also discover a strange sexual/romantic relationship. Plus in Memphis, they interact with Uruguayan street vendor Gianni (Kristian Bikic) who sells them a native sandwich. As Cat posts online, we see projected tweets and answers from an array of personalities all impersonated by Lucy Lopez.
Actually, really, really deep into the 90-minute evening, we discover Cat has another driving personal goal we won’t reveal here that is connected to the ultimate destination being the odd choice of North Dakota. But debatably dramaturgically but intentionally we guess, she finds a tiny bit of what she seeks, certainly not the satisfying conclusion she or we were hoping for.
The evening is shot through with humor such as Blake contacting Cat on the phone with an increasingly rapid babble-a-thon.
But it also offers diverse snapshots of life in this decade:
At one point, Cat says to Lewis, “Your dad was 30 (when he came to America)! And he’s more American than I am…. It can’t be us that spew the hate. That’s what they want us to do. They want us to break from the inside out…. We’re so fucking lucky and we don’t even know it and if I have to listen to one more privileged fuck bash America or call himself a communist while living in the lap of capitalist luxury and not even understanding where that comes from, I’m gonna spew.”
To which Lewis responds, “We have a responsibility to hold the country up to its own standards.”
And we see an interview done with Lewis’ father (also Lopez) who founded the Monteverde Moonshine company of legitimate liquor, inspired by his Southern wife’s grandfather.
“Eloisa’s grandfather was a moonshiner and I felt it was important to keep those traditions alive once I learned about them. Moonshine is so American. It’s outlaw, secret, raw. It’s truth itself. And so is what I do, which is the opposite and the same thing that Eloisa’s grandfather did. I fell in love with the stuff people made in their basement, but that shit could kill you. So, what if you brought it to the surface? What if you put a label on it? What if you cleaned it up and sold it. And everybody made a 50 profit, and nobody died. That’s also American. I could have my moonshine and drink it too.”
In the end, all but one of the pieces of the trip coalesce in music and dance, and a new temporary family has been created.
The creators intentionally toss around the word “mayhem,” which is, indeed, what they have successfully put on the stage. I admit I spent much of the evening trying to discern a thematic throughline in the disparate episodes. But as I drove home discussing it with my seatmate – who enjoyed it much more than I did— much of it came clear. And in writing this review, it became even clearer.
Still, the trio and their cast’s enthusiasm are infectious in the auditorium. The glue and powerplant behind the evening is Almaguer – an electric cherry-haired human dynamo who verbally drowns the stage like an open fire hydrant of passion – yet an insatiably voracious vacuum cleaner of everything happening around her.
The rest of the cast is solid, but special note for Bikic as the immigrant who ends up jailed and his father deported because of Cat’s posts. He has sharp words for Cat thinking she can relate to his plight as someone with Hispanic roots.
A hat tip to the designer Natasha Hernandez for her character-enhancing costumes, especially Blake’s motley outfit which includes “555” written on the pants. (I looked it up on Wikipedia: It’s a symbol of positive change and new beginnings, encouragement and support from your angels, a reminder to trust in the journey and know that you are being guided and supported on your path, freedom, adventure, liberation, and intensity.)
There are times lines get mumbled and some parts of characters and their motivation take a while before we quite figure them out, but we do eventually.
For instance, another nun twice advises Cat what sounds clearly like “Wounds are wounds.” Which makes no sense.
The script reveals “You know, sometimes wounds are wombs. … They break skin to give you a new life and once that new life is there, you just – you’re not the same. And it’s not bad. And it’s not necessarily good. It’s just awesome. Sometimes. Like God is awesome. It’s mayhem. And it’s … life.”
To be fair, the meandering, seemingly disconnected narrative seems to leave out a few crucial pieces of information that make the story hard to follow, although the information is often inserted a scene or two later.
But if the journey is as engaging and entertaining as this, enjoy the scenery.
Anal note: Those of us who have lived in Missouri know that the state capital Jefferson City is south of college town Columbia not north of it toward Dakota. Maybe Cat and Lewis got lost.
#Graced from Zoetic Stage plays through May 21 in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional performance 7:30 p.m. May 10, no matinee May 13). Running time 1 hour 40 minutes no intermission. Tickets $55-$60. Call 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org
To read a preview piece by Christine Dolen at artburstmiami, click here: