If you're looking for a theatrical experience that's as accessible as the bottom-shelf sugar cereals in a grocery store, you should probably turn around and go home to your TiVo'd episode of The Biggest Loser. If you're willing to do some mental stretching, flexing, and occasional contorting, step right into Pinkolandia — your efforts will be handsomely rewarded.
Written by Andrea Thome, Pinkolandia is not for the faint of imagination. Luckily, it has found a perfect home at INTAR's small scotch-tape-and-super-glue theater that makes you feel like a true, hip New Yorker the second you step inside.
A video projection of 1980s television commercials (designed by Alex Koch) places us in what we soon learn to be the home of a Chilean family in Reagan-era Wisconsin (we later discover that the family fled Chile in 1973 following the coup of Salvador Allende's socialist government). There, we meet the two daughters of the house: Gaby, a wide-eyed nine-year-old (played by an older Heather Velazquez) who conjures the fantastical world of "Closet Land" as her own personal escape, and Beny, a cynical-beyond-her-years twelve-year-old (also played by an adult Maria Helan) who goes on frequent political tirades about American capitalism, totalitarian injustices, and Nazi Germany (she's a few decades too late on that one). The family fled Chile when Beny was three years old, so she, as opposed to Gaby, has a few memories of her homeland. These memories make it particularly difficult for her to define herself culturally and to accept the finality of her family's departure from Chile, the circumstances of which have been kept hidden from her.
Thome translates these feelings of cultural confusion into wild scenes of imagination, staged by director José Zayas. A talking polar bear, political interrogations, and an Evita-inspired rally (with 12-year-old Beny in the balcony position) require a willing audience with an open mind and a high tolerance for ridiculous costumes (designed by Ásta Hostetter). Fortunately, Pinkolandia has the substance to support such extreme maneuvers. If you channel the flexibility of a child's mind and go along for the ride as you zig-zag in and out of reality, you will be left with images to unravel and ideas to chew on for days to come (something to do while you recover from your mental whiplash).
The originality of Pinkolandia's "free verse" structure is both its greatest asset and its biggest downfall. The audience rarely has a chance to catch its breath and find solid footing within the story through the constant barrage of disorienting transitions; though at the same time, this feeling of imbalance allows us to experience the world directly from Beny's vantage point of groundlessness. Ryan Ogara's creative lighting design acts as a helpful guide as we frenetically weave between the worlds of fantasy and reality. Much of the dialogue, however, is spoken in Spanish, adding another layer to our vertigo (at least for the nonnative speakers in the audience). Thome does attempt to surreptitiously incorporate English translations, but still, there were several quips that no amount of high school Spanish could have kept from whizzing by.
It's not until the second act, when Thome reveals more about the family's immigration to America and more thoroughly explains the backdrop of Chilean politics, that the play finds its footing. Thankfully, Pinkolandia is graced with a strong ensemble that keeps us engaged as the lengthy first act lays the groundwork. Velazquez (Gaby), though relatively unvarying in her line delivery, captures her character's unadulterated innocence and offers some of the greatest moments of comic relief. Helan (Beny) delivers a show-stopping rant that ends with her hurling eggshells at pictures of Chuck Norris and Donald Duck. Annie Henk (who plays the girls' mother), however, delivers the most memorable performance of the evening — one moment the epitome of maternal strength, the next, a fragile woman struggling to keep her family afloat in a foreign country.
Certainly not a one-size-fits-all play, Pinkolandia deserves high praise for its bold use of silliness and childlike whimsy to communicate profound, adult messages. It may even inspire you to revisit your own childhood version of "Closet Land" if in need of a temporary escape from the demons of adulthood. After all, "monsters can't go to Closet Land." At least that's what Gaby tells me.