On the one hand, it is a punch in the gut dramatizing the cold hard facts of disintegrating with this disease; on the other, the non-linear time scheme is difficult to follow, offering more questions than it answers. What Orange Julius really is could be described more accurately as a screenplay or a teleplay with cuts and fades. There is a powerful work hiding in this material but it still remains unshaped. Under Dustin Wills’ fast-paced direction, Jess Barbagallo, Ruy Iskandar, Irene Sofia Lucio, Stephen Payne and Mary Testa give fine performances despite the fact that the play seems to wander around trying to find its center.
Nut’s father has died of Agent Orange and Nut tries to deal with their distant, troubled relationship by recalling moments they shared. Julius, a grizzled, weather beaten factory worker, is a violent, embittered, angry Vietnam War veteran. Going back to age seven, Nut’s memories of his father and his family come tumbling out in stream of consciousness order, rather than chronologically. Nut watches violent war movies with Julius, and imagines his experiences, being in Vietnam with him and an ultra-macho soldier, Ol’ Boy, apparently a figment of Nut’s imagination. Also involved in the family situation are Nut’s mother France having trouble dealing with Julius’ illness and an older sister Crimp.
While Nut is a trans-masculine person, the family responds to him as though he were female. However, this is a given in the play, and subtly handled. The only problem Nut expresses on that subject is not wanting to attend school or deal with growing breasts. What is confusing is the time shifts each of which are introduced by statements like “I’m 20” or “It’s 2004.” It takes a while to realize that the Vietnam flashbacks are imaginary rather than stories that the generally silent Julius has recounted.
Kate Noll’s set is also problematic as it looks like the family is living in a garage. The overhead door is used to reveal the Vietnam sequences through smoke. Nut’s brother is mentioned in passing but neither appears nor are we told his story; he remains an enigma. What the play is best at is delineating Julius’ medical condition and how it impacts on the family, as well as the distant relationship that Nut always has with him. We get the message that Nut doesn’t feel either masculine or feminine enough around Julius.
The cast is first rate and they make the play believable as the acting is more realistic than the script or the presentation. Transgendered actor Jess Barbagallo holds the play together as Nut both as narrator and as a participant in the action. In a difficult role, Stephen Payne is completely convincing as the nearly inarticulate veteran with many unresolved issues. Playing one of her few non-musical or non- comedic roles, Mary Testa is commanding as the mother who has too much to cope with. Ruy Iskandar is scarily efficient as the imaginary American soldier who is hyper-masculine, while Irene Sofia Lucio in the underwritten role of Nut’s sister Crimp fleshes out the vague parameters of her character. Wills’ direction is always assured even when the play leaves unanswered questions.
Montana Levi Blanco’s casual contemporary costumes add color to the mostly empty stage. The lighting by Barbara Samuels, the sound design by Palmer Hefferan and projection design by Joey Moro are most impressive in the Vietnam dream sequences. As always, Rick Sordelet’s fight direction looks both dangerous and realistic. Basil Kreimendahl’s Orange Julius has the ring of truth but needs a good deal more shaping to be a completely satisfying evening in the theater.
Orange Julius (through February 12, 2017)
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Page 73
224 Waverly Place, west of Seventh Avenue South, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-627-2556 or visit http://www.rattlestick.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission