The blonde goes out into the audience and engages people and beckons some who gather in the theater’s aisle. They turn out to be the cast of WHO AM I. This is the enthralling 10-minute opening sequence of this labored but beguiling 90-minute play.
Author Rodney Reyes has created an intriguing surrealistic collage with emotionally raw dialogue that for the first half is frustratingly vague but becomes clearer as it builds to its poignant finale.
It takes a while to fully discern the identities of all the characters. There is a young male drug addict visited by God in the form of the blonde woman from the beginning and the two dancers who are her “functions.” The apparition of her mother who abandoned her many years ago haunts an embittered woman in her 30’s. A disaffected and solipsistic man clashes with an alluring woman who is the physical representation of his inner transgender self. The young girl he created as a comic book character plagues a drunken comic book writer whose wife left him because he couldn’t father children.
These murky interconnected vignettes eventually are all resolved with Twilight Zone style twists and surprises. The theme of a creator clashing with their creation becomes evident.
Director Janelle Zapata’s staging has the cast of ten strategically arranged on the small stage throughout much of the show and adeptly weaves the separate interactions among the four duos. Ms. Zapata creates plenty of striking imagery in the limbo terrain.
Jason G. Rader’s expert lighting design often has the actors’ faces in half shadows, abrupt brief blackouts between scenes, and bursts of brightness and dimness all conveying an other worldly dimension. The sound design of Christina Daly adds to the moodiness with artfully blended music and sound effects.
The long raven haired, sleek and charismatic Jenna DiMartini is magnetic as the inner psyche of the transgender man. Ms. Di Martini’s face and eyes are highly expressive and her performance is simultaneously fierce, comic and empathetic. The dynamism of her physique and persona make it appear that she’s about to play Lola in Damn Yankees, the title role in Sweet Charity or a number of the roles in Chicago. Clad in a taut black dress, DiMartini is like a sensual present day vision of a Bob Fosse performer.
Gladys Hendricks is a delightfully deadpan and enticing God with her luminous presence and accomplished acting and dancing skills. Amy Miller and Erin Quarrels (alternating with Saeko Hayashi and Leanne Gioia) are tremendously appealing as her dancing “functions” and remain onstage assisting in actions and as part of tableaus.
Eric Campos, Randy Cordero, Jenna DiMartini, Michael Hagins, Rebecca R. Overholt, and Mary Sheridan comprise the rest of the effective company and give energetic and demonstrative performances.
Though turgid at times, the ambitious and passionate WHO AM I contains mesmerizing opening and closing sequences.
WHO AM I (through July 8, 2016)
Step 1 Theatre Project and The 2016 Planet Connections Festivity
The Paradise Factory, 64 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.planetconnections.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission