Review: An Actor Explores the Life of His Mother by Becoming Her in Ni Mi Madre
Arturo Luís Soria's solo play has an undeniably fabulous protagonist.
When you're a gay man, your mother is a natural first subject for drag. I will readily admit to marching around my childhood living room at the age of 4 in my mother's pink pumps, pretending to be a busy lady realtor. Some of us don't take the folk art of our people much further than that, while others go on to spectacular careers in female impersonation — usually as a new character named something like "Mary Poppers" or "Barbra Coa." Usually...
Writer-performer Arturo Luís Soria is still playing his mother, presently in his solo play Ni Mi Madre at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. A tongue pop serves as the downbeat to her opening number, Cher's "Believe," a drag favorite as it is well within the male vocal range. "I love Madonna," she tells us, eliciting rounds of laughter from the audience.
Over the next hour, we get to know Elizabeth Cristina Alencar Pizzoli Gobler Soria Frias (the playwright gives her a full namecheck in his program note) or "Bete" for short. A Brazilian immigrant with an extraordinary transnational family, she tells us all about her three husbands (the "inebriated Jew," the "Ecuadorian commie," and the "gay Dominican") as well as the numerous children she has raised, with and without their help. We also get glimpses into her impoverished childhood in the shadows of the high-rises on Ipanema Beach, her strained relationship with her own mother, and how that has influenced her perspective. And if there's one thing Bete has in droves, it is perspective.
The most delightful thing about Ni Mi Madre is hearing the unvarnished voice of one working-class immigrant infiltrate the American theater, dominated as it is by bourgeois manners and attitudes. Bete is a woman who thinks bisexuals are "selfish," Ecuadoreans resemble "mini-fridges," and ADHD is a disorder invented by rich white people as an excuse to not discipline their kids. And she has very clear thoughts on discipline, which just doesn't count if it's not backed up by la chancla. She is completely unbound by squishy notions of propriety, and that makes her a fascinating and sympathetic subject for a solo show.
Of course, the title (translation: "not my mother") seems to leave room for plausible deniability, but it really does feel like the If I Did It of confessional solo shows about one's mother. If Ni Mi Madre really isn't about Soria's mother, he's fooled me. His performance and the anecdotes he conveys are just so specific and emotionally resonant, it's hard to believe this is all invention. An explosively energetic performer, Soria manages to capture the unique mania of the American immigrant experience, a journey that leaves little room for regret or backpedaling.
Director Danilo Gambini harnesses Soria's natural energy into well-choreographed pandemonium. There is a fine line in solo theater between entertainment and self-indulgence, and Gambini allows Soria to samba right up to that line without crossing over.
Gambini has also marshaled the talents of an excellent design team: The peach walls and potted plants of Stephanie Osin Cohen's set immediately put us on the beach, while the framed photos and little kitsch idols give us a sense of an altar for a church of one. Kathy Ruvuna's too-loud sound design brings us into a world where you need to shout to be heard — which is often the case in big families. Krista Smith's lighting conveys moments of exceptional beauty and ingenuity, like when Bete gestures to her two parents, depicted as giant silhouettes on either side of the theater. A hundred practical lights glow like stars from embedded positions on Cohen's set. Such consistently high production values are uncommon in an off-off-Broadway solo play.
But Soria is obviously an uncommon kind of performer with a great story to tell. I suspect that this first hour is just the tip of the iceberg.