Review: In Candlelight, John Patrick Shanley Illuminates the Lives of a Modern Romeo & Juliet
Shanley's distinctive new magical-realist play makes its world premiere with the Nylon Fusion Theater Company.
Upon entering the New Ohio Theatre for John Patrick Shanley's new play Candlelight, audience members are treated to blasts from the speakers of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen. Expectations are thereby set for a potentially grand and romantic experience — an anticipation only furthered by publicity materials describing this new work as "a Nuyorican comic romantic tragedy covered with magic and dipped in Brooklyn blood." As it turns out, though, "comic," "grand," and "romantic" don't come close to describing just how nutty Candlelight, making its world premiere with the Nylon Fusion Theatre Company, truly is.
"A magical-realist Romeo and Juliet for kids" is one way to boil down Candlelight, especially since it revolves around the forbidden love that develops between two 10-year-olds, Esperanza (Ivette Dumeng) and Tito (Marc Reign). But the lives surrounding these two children are not kid-friendly, by any means. Esperanza's abusive father, Hector (Alfredo Diaz), drove her mother, Collette, to suicide and is perverse enough to allow her to take over her mother's room. Tito's home life is only marginally less troubled, his father having recently passed and his mother severely depressed.
Both Esperanza and Tito find an escape hatch in the realm of fantasy, which frequently bleeds into reality in Candlelight. For Esperanza, that fantasy manifests itself in her mother's sentient robe (Darlene Tejeiro); a talking mirror (John Cencio Burgos); a giant squirrel; a scantily clad Canadian guardian angel named Mabel (Christina Toth); her deceased mother's spirit (also Tejeiro); and Satan (also Diaz), here given a large erect penis (told you this wasn't kid-friendly). Tito's fantasy world is less physically populated beyond a demon that occasionally pops up from a steaming pot of oatmeal. But Tito is driven by a spiritual illusion: his belief that Esperanza is the second coming of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Shanley adds a third wheel to this burgeoning love story: Paulie (also Burgos), a lonely gay kid who's flattered by Tito lavishing attention on him, but whose wounded feelings of betrayal when Tito admits he doesn't like him that much fuel the play's turn toward tragedy. If all of that wasn't enough, Shanley also throws in bits of jokey fourth-wall-breaking self-awareness, as if he intended Candlelight to also be partly a Princess Bride- or Shrek-style satire of children's fantasy tales. Most memorable in that regard is Mabel's mildly exasperated aside to the audience during one of her onstage dances (choreographed by Tatyana Kot): "Three years in Juilliard and this is what I have to show for it."
This much can be said for Candlelight: Shanley makes it difficult for us to anticipate what crazy stage image or tonal shift he will throw at us next. It makes sense that something this anarchic is making its world premiere with an off-off-Broadway theater company like Nylon Fusion; one can only imagine how the more patrician audience members of, say, Manhattan Theatre Club would react to the spectacle of a human-sized squirrel going all Lorena Bobbitt on the Devil Himself.
Candlelight might have gotten more mileage if Shanley hadn't telegraphed the Romeo and Juliet connection in its opening scene, with Esperanza playacting Shakespeare's romantic tragedy with a pillow. About midway through, as the connections between Shakespeare's plot and Shanley's begin to become more apparent, it's not hard to predict where the rest of the play is headed.
Still, director Lori Kee and the game cast pull no punches in putting across this bizarre material with maximum conviction. As the three 10-year-old lead characters, Dumeng, Reign, and Burgos are convincingly childlike, with Burgos particularly touching in his portrayal of Paulie's inner anguish about his homosexuality. Lighting designer Wilburn Bonnell uses a variety of multicolored spotlights to delineate fantasy from reality on Elizabeth Chaney's various elaborate interior sets and Janet Mervin's imaginative costumes. Janet Bentley's projections and Andy Evan Cohen's sound design contribute immensely to the work's overall dark magical-realist vibe. It's hardly a slick production, but the scrappiness seems fitting to its vision of innocence that refuses to be corrupted by evil.
It's difficult to say whether Candlelight is a "good" play or not. "Good" and "bad" seem like inadequate adjectives in the face of a work that sets its own laws, operating outside conventional boundaries of taste and decorum. But it is certainly memorable, if nothing else. When you leave the theater, you'll know you've seen something.