Founded in 1991, the National Asian American Theater Company’s mission is to present theater with all Asian-American casts. This is accomplished by producing classics of European and American works of dramatic literature, or adaptations of these works by Asian-American playwrights or new plays written by non-Asian Americans, not for or about Asian Americans. That last precept is the case of this East coast premiere of Sagittarius Ponderosa.
Gender fluid author MJ Kaufman is the award-winning and established playwright who has written this enchanting work. Kaufman’s dialogue is a wonderful combination of simplicity and the poetic. The characters all grandly express themselves with mystical overtones. Most crucially Kaufman endows them all with tremendous warmth and humanity. The plot is a basic series of life events.
The play’s title refers to the leading character’s zodiac sign and to a large tree that dominates the action and the stage.
Troubled, 29-year-old Angela has returned to the Central Oregon desert on the edge of a Ponderosa Pine forest to visit her family for Thanksgiving. Her parents are in their 60’s. Her father is ailing and her stalwart mother is doing her best with this situation. Her hard of hearing 80ish grandmother lives nearby in a senior citizens residence where she is friendly with the elderly Mr. Peterson.
Angela calls herself “Archer” and the issue of her gender is obliquely imparted and cryptically referred to by her family. While sleeping outside under a large tree, she meets the cheerful Owen. He is a 29-year-old graduate student from California who is a summer intern at the nature conservancy. They become romantically involved and the play concludes an eventful year later, again at Thanksgiving.
The transgendered Chinese-Singaporean multimedia artist Bex Kwan plays Angela. Kwan’s performance is captivating and beautifully conveys the conflicted inner sense of the outcast. Kwan’s achievement is in the tradition of disaffected theatrical figures such as Frankie Addams in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding.
As Pops, Glenn Kubota is supremely gentle. Mr. Kubota’s commanding stillness and haunting presence recalls the renowned spaciness of Sir Ralph Richardson in old age. Kubota is also an exceptional puppeteer and ably brings his acting skills to his characterization of designer Tom Lee’s eerie puppet as well.
Mia Katigbak offers a complex and sterling matriarchal portrait as Mom. Markedly veering from daffy to icy and to tender, Ms. Katigbak is highly effective with her absorbing and plaintive voice and expressive facial features.
With a crisp girlish speech pattern and sunniness, Virginia Wing is marvelous as Grandma. Ms. Wing lovingly captures the character’s enduring vitality and ingrained optimism especially when fantasizing about planning Angela’s imagined wedding.
The ebullient and handsome Daniel K. Isaac is tremendously charming as Owen. Perpetually smiling and with his twinkling eyes, Isaac understandably becomes an object of fascination to several characters in the play. His delivery of the line, “Wanna fuck?” is priceless.
Besides achieving these sensitive performances, director Ken Rus Schmoll has also superbly coordinated the production’s superior design components into an enthralling presentation.
Thomas Kavanagh’s striking projections of constellations are shown on both sides of the runway stage that showcases scenic designer Kimie Nishikawa’s prodigious creations. At one end is a large assemblage of gauzy white material that sensationally represents the tree and the snowy outdoors. At the other end is Grandma’s cozy apartment. In the center are the well-furnished rooms of the family home. It’s all a visually compelling landscape.
Oliver Wason’s expert lighting design ranges from realism to celestial, with appropriate bursts of dimness, brightness and total darkness.
The atmospheric, original incidental score by skillful sound designer Miles Polaski adds immensely to the enigmatic sense of the piece.
Working from a palate of jeans, plaid shirts and ordinary every day clothes, costume designer Brynn Almli vibrantly and realistically dresses each character.
NAATCO totally proves their mission with this production. With their magnetic work, the Asian-American ensemble transcends the standard view that these characters would have to be performed by Caucasians.
Poignant and engrossing, Sagittarius Ponderosa is a rich experience.
Sagittarius Ponderosa (through November 19, 2016)
National Asian American Theater Company (NAATCO)
3LD Art & Technology Center
80 Greenwich Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006 or visit http://www.naatco.org
Running time: 60 minutes with no intermission