Playwright John Patrick Shanley has said in interviews that his latest play Candlelight is a new departure for him. Described as “A Nuyorican comic romantic tragedy covered with magic and dipped in Brooklyn blood” in its world premiere given by Nylon Fusion Theatre Company, the play follows the tale of ten-year-old Esperanza as she falls in love with a classmate Tito and lets her imagination run away with her. It is one of those plays where the children are played by adults and objects like a mirror, a robe and a sword come to life. Set in a nightmare world of children, the play covers child abuse, sexual assault, drug addiction, violence, all presented as a fairy tale for children. One wonders who the target audience for this is: it is too mature for children but too whimsical for adults. While Lori Kee’s production is fine, some of her casting of the children played by adults is not believable though the actors certainly try hard.
A good deal of the play seems to be taken from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, at least the theme of young love separated by parents. It is Esperanza’s tenth birthday party and we find out that her mother Colette has recently committed suicide. Her father Hector who is having difficulties with his loss has repainted the master bedroom all white for his daughter who still sees it as her parents’ room. Dancing with a classmate, Tito, Esperanza feels the magic of love. Left alone we find that her mirror, robe and sword have a life of their own in the dark.
Another classmate Paulie, who is having trouble with his sexuality and is usually left out of the games of the other children, develops a jealousy of Tito for having a reciprocal relationship with Esperanza, and precipitates the ultimate tragedy. When Hector’s drinking gets out of control, things begin to go downhill from there. However, Esperanza and Tito think they can create a world of their own but that is not to be.
Esperanza has been brought up on magic by her French mother and the play includes visitations from the dead Colette and Satan as well as inanimate objects which come to life when no one is around to see them. On this level the play resembles Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change and Edmund Rostand’s Chanticleer but here they appear to be part of Esperanza’s vivid imagination during a dark time in her life.
While the actors playing children sound believable, little attempt has been made to make them look like children so the play requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief. As two young lovers, Ivette Dumeng and Marc Reign seem to have taken a good deal from Romeo and Juliet as though played by Nuyorican youth. In one scene, Dumeng reenacts Shakespeare’s play using her pillows as fellow actors. John Cencio Burgos as the outcast Paulie is much more successful playing a preadolescent.
Alfredo Diaz as Esperanza’s father Hector is credible as the bitter, sinister widower who probably drove his wife to her death. Darlene Tejeiro as the ghost of Colette has little to do, while Christina Toth as both a golden fairy named Mabel and later as Esperanza’s foster mother also named Mabel has a great deal to do that is partially unexplained. Burgos also appears as the Mirror which comes to life, while Hector’s alter ego Satan (also played by Diaz) seems to be a reflection of his sinister nature.
Nylon Fusion Theatre Company has given the play a highly professional production beginning with the realistic sets by Elizabeth Chaney who is also responsible for the very necessary prop design for the fantasy sequences. Janet Mervin has created a great many handsome costumes for the passing of time. The lighting by Wilburn Bonnell at times approaches the magical in scenes like the meteor shower and the nighttime appearances of the dolls and other inanimate objects. While Andy Evan Cohen’s sound design is excellent for the musical portions of the play, at times it is difficult to make out the words of the actors unless as children they are purposely slurring their speech. Randall Rodriguez is credited with the realistic fight choreography, while Tatyana Kot has created the movement which includes the romantic dancing for Esperanza and Tito.
While most of John Patrick Shanley’s new play is told from a ten year old’s point of view this is not exactly intended as children’s theater. Although given an excellent production, this is not for all theatergoers: those who do not like fantasy or whimsy will have a difficult time with this play. Those who can suspend their disbelief will find it a much more finished work. The ending is particularly problematic as to what is real and what is imagined.
Candlelight (through December 19, 2021)
Nylon Fusion Theatre Company
New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, west of Hudson Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.nylonfusion.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission