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Our Dad is in Atlantis

May 14, 2008

I said on Friday that I would offer a review (of sorts) of Phoenix Theatre’s newest play, Our Dad is in Atlantis. Turns out, it’s the kind of play I needed to think about for a couple of days longer than I had anticipated.

I’ve not read the script on which this production was based nor had I seen any other version of this play prior to the Phoenix’s, so it’s impossible for me to judge precisely what elements were requested by the playwright and which came from the mind of the production team. In any case, I think I can say this with some amount of confidence: this play is beguilingly simple. The interaction between the two actors and between their lines is straightforward and natural. Important lines are delivered in ways unassuming of future importance. The lighting and music offer no clues to an audience anxious to follow and anticipate the action of the two child-characters on stage.

In other words there is very little in the presentation to clue the audience into the fact that they are being challenged in any way.

The stage design is minimalist and abstract. From the center stage ceiling hang three wavy lines punctuated with simple geometric shapes. Backstage is a large circle. To the (audience’s) right, a simple black riser. At the start of each scene a projected screen announces chapter titles: “Stuff about the countryside” reads one, “Stuff about gringos,” another and others. The lighting design is similarly straightforward.

In some ways the abstract stage seems jarring to the earthy and direct dialogue. At other times, a late scene in the desert comes to mind, when the children are so clearly out of their element, the dispassionate and alien stage is perfect. The music similarly weaves itself on top of and then into the plot, at times disconcertingly out of place, at other times too accessibly eerie, too forthrightly ominous. The music and the onstage musician, take on a presence, like the projected screen, of being an omniscient presence, greedily holding back the story, relishing in our ignorance and anticipation.

Other than the accordion player, there are only two characters on stage, the two boys whose father is in Atlantis (really “Atlanta” as misread by one of the young characters). But they are not alone in the world, just on stage. After their mother’s death they move in with their grandmother when their father heads to America to earn money. After their grandmother’s death, they move in with an aunt and an uncle and two cousins. There are also schoolmates that plague the two boys.

In another, more important, way, it is wrong to say that the boys are not alone in the world, because they most definitely are. Each scene is shadowed by distance or abandonment, from the opening scene on a bus when the two boys are about to be left at their grandmother’s house, to the end when they are finally running from their horrible lives and headed north themselves. In most cases the the evils of the world have recently been visited upon one of the two boys: a black eye courtesy of a school bully, a caning at the hand of grandma. Sometimes the catastrophe is nearby, but too threatening a presence nevertheless, as when a cousin has to be taken to the dentist–his off stage screams are played by a discordant accordion.

As the play unfolds and then end, more questions are raised than answers given. By its finale several unsettling questions remain–which seems to be one of the points of this play, to challenge expectations and to aid in discussing important questions that seem too often ignored. The most important question in this regard is this: What or where is Atlantis?

At first it seems so obvious. Atlantis is Atlanta. But as the play goes on Atlantis comes to represent first an earthly and then a spiritual paradise, that is, heaven. As the play ends, Atlantis seems to be something else altogether: the past, the paradise lost, Eden, and, in the context of the play, Mexico. Mexico is the paradisaical realm, sinking beneath monstrous waves, sending it’s people out in tragic and lonely diaspora.

“That place doesn’t exist!” says the older brother to the younger–and later, “That place never existed.” And it’s true, the land left behind, as the lives of these two children bear witness, is not the perfect place they would imagine if they’d left. It is not the perfect place their father likely thinks of while working in Atlanta. The children remember a past with their mother that is likely better than the reality. This commonplace idea is of “you can’t go home again” is skirted from a variety of views until it too is a violent and distance character on the stage like the aunt, uncle, grandmother, father, and cousins.

This a good play and an important one and the Phoenix does not disappoint in putting together a performance that leaves one pondering the subjects at hand long after the final bow. I will most likely see the play again this time in Spanish. And, if it is within your ability to enjoy the play in Spanish I would recommend that you do that. The play was originally written in Spanish and takes place in Mexico. Certain textual flaws would likely vanish in the reversion to the original and it would significantly add to the power of the dialogue which relies, in part, on its naturalness–a naturalness it loses somewhat in the translation.

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