Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Dual ways of looking at "Duels" by Nick Stokes

The cast of Duels (Andrea Sassenrath)
(at 12th Avenue Arts)
Through September 10, 2016

In a metaphorical and concrete way, Irene tends her garden, in the premiere of Nick Stokes’ play, Duels, mounted with the help of director Jose Amador, and presented at 12th Avenue Arts. But this garden has more than vegetables in it. It has become the graves of her husband and lover.

Walking into the room at 12AA, one is immediately met by the pungent smell of dirt packed into inverted triangles with a path between them. Plantings immediately bring to mind a vegetable garden, but lying there, as well, are the two men in the play. Carter Rodriquez and Daniel Christensen play Juan and John, the two men in Irene’s life.

At first, we see Irene (Marianna de Fazio), coping confidently and graciously with birthing a new calf, sure of her ability to manage the facets of country urban farming on her own. But suddenly, Juan and John arise and face each other in an inexplicable duel, while she explains that they’ve killed each other and walks them through the process of doing it again.

Are these ghosts of her imagination? Are they memories? We don’t quite know. We watch them pace off five steps and turn and shoot, but they beat her count. Is it on purpose that they break her rule?

Soon, as aspects of that scene play again, but slightly differently, we realize that we’re moving backward in time, revealing the story of a woman and the two men influencing her life. John is the bustling, well-paid executive who buys a house in the country for his wife because it’s a symbol of their upper class idealism. Juan is the underpaid gardener who is hired to take care of the new landscaping. John is gone a lot, Juan brings Irene an understanding of the earth, fresh vegetables, and a different connection to life.

The bored housewife is a bit of a cliché that Stokes depends on to shape the play. The least clichéd aspect of the play is the beginning, where Irene has somehow grown comfortable in managing not just vegetables, but goats and chickens, and birthing a calf by herself. I would love to know how she manages to get all the way to that confidence and capacity. That answer is not in the play.

The interest the play has is in the poetry of the interaction and especially in the verve and enjoyment that Rodriquez brings to vegetation as he surpasses the stereotypical Mexican gardener and convinces the audience, too, along with Irene, about how special fresh vegetables are. He does this partly by speaking more and more Spanish, which helps emphasize the poetry.

The play continues backward in time, and to some extent, back toward more realism. But each scene might be interrupted or ended with another duel, which might involve squirting fluids that could land on audience members.

Each of the three actors is solidly grounded in character and plays the situation wonderfully. They help gloss over some of the less solid aspects of the script, so that Irene’s character development seems more present than it really is, as written, very much due to de Fazio’s abilities and talents as an actor. The men’s motivations and desires are much more easily identified and clear than hers are. Stokes could develop Irene a bit more in future iterations, if he wishes.

Working backward and repeating poetic emotional themes create a resonant background to these characters’ lives. Paring back a bit of the script and beefing up Irene’s inner life will go far to making this script a winning effort for other theaters looking for interesting ways to tell true stories of relationship.

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