By Stefani Kuo; Directed by Theo Maltz
Produced by Coral Elizabeth Smith and Catherine Woodard
Produced as part of The Corkscrew Theater Festival
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 8.5.18
Paradise Factory, 64 East 4th Street
by Charlotte Arnoux on 8.1.18
Diane Chen, Cleo Gray, Drita Kabashi, and Dominique Brillon in delicacy of a puffin heart. Photo by PJ Norton.
BOTTOM LINE: A mother and daughter struggle with the alienation caused by their mental illnesses.
Immigration is an increasingly prominent topic for new plays. But plays featuring immigrant characters can easily become one dimensional. In delicacy of a puffin heart, playwright Stefani Kuo beautifully incorporates fascinating journeys of intergenerational immigrants while making her play about so much more.
The play centers around two pairs of women living in the same San Francisco apartment, decades apart. In the 1990s, the apartment is inhabited by a lesbian couple in the process of selecting a sperm donor for the in-vitro fertilization of their child—there's Meryl (Diane Chen), a Chinese American citizen, and Ana Sofia (Drita Kabashi), who comes from Bulgaria.
Two decades later, Meryl and Ana Sofia’s daughter Robyn (Dominique Brillon) now lives in the same apartment with her Korean roommate Hadley (Cleo Gray), whose family is applying for Green Cards. Robyn is undergoing chemotherapy, but it’s not looking good—she’s lost her hair, is very weak, and will most likely not make it through this alive. As a selfless act of friendship, Hadley has delayed her medical studies to live with Robyn and be her caretaker. We meet them after Hadley’s latest act of solidarity: she’s shaved her head. Their profound friendship is tested again and again throughout the play.
The two plots play out side by side, sometimes even simultaneously, weaving a cross-generational web that is exciting and ingeniously realized by director Theo Maltz. Kuo and Maltz create a couple of highly effective moments where Meryl and Robyn seem to connect across time—perhaps through hallucinations? These well-crafted flashes are supported by Sammy Ross’s poignant lighting design.
And Kuo's structural choice serves the storylines beautifully, slowly revealing that both Meryl and her daughter Robyn suffer from severe mental illnesses. By seeing their lives unravel concurrently, the realities of inherited trauma and the consequences of being raised by a person living with a serious mental disorder are highlighted. We also benefit from seeing Ana Sofia and Hadley reckon with loving a person with mental illness—they both suffer terrible betrayals at the hands of their loved ones.
The all-female ensemble is dynamic and rises to the challenges of this complex piece. Gray portrays Hadley with a disquieting strength, made that much more poignant by the moments when she allows herself to crack. Brillon brings to Robyn an eerie detachment that serves the character’s situation well. Kabashi fills the stage with a confident, relaxed presence and effortlessly captures Ana Sofia’s wit, courage and humor. Chen brilliantly interprets Meryl, carefully balancing her heightened states with the darker side of her "bad days." Finally, Olivia Abiassi, who plays Meryl’s friend and study partner Paula, is a gifted comedienne and an attentive actor.
delicacy of a puffin heart is an ambitious play with many moving parts, and would benefit from a few more design elements in it's next incarnation. For instance, when Meryl appears in the present, she has not aged at all, despite it being a good 20 years later. Without any clear design aids (or a press release), it is difficult to understand that Meryl and Ana Sofia's scenes are in the past—unless you happen to catch the use of Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me." For a play that is so realistic and thoughtful, this is a disappointing oversight.
Kuo manages to include many gripping concepts and ideas in her play, while grounding it with a sturdy and innovative structure. delicacy of a puffin heart is a play about the omnipresent effects of mental illness, the resilience of friendship, and how love is not always enough.
(delicacy of a puffin heart plays at the Paradise Factory, 64 East 4th Street, through August 5, 2018. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Remaining performances are 8/1 at 7, 8/3 at 8, 8/4 at 1, and 8/5 at 4:30. Tickets are $24 and are available at corkscrewfestival.org or by calling 347.954.9125.)
delicacy of a puffin heart is by Stefani Kuo. Directed by Theo Maltz. Produced by Coral Elizabeth Smith and Catherine Woodard. Set Design by Jessie Chen. Lighting Design by Sammy Ross. Costume Design by Iliana Paris. Sound Design by Megumi Katayama. Stage Manager is Eloia Peterson.
The cast is Dominique Brillon, Diane Chen, Cleo Gray, Drita Kabashi, and Olivia Abiassi.