Happy, happier, happiest

Brown/Trinity Playwright Rep's summer trilogy
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  July 31, 2013

FREE SPIRIT Landon and Tolan Mee in 'Melena. [Photos by Ian Ameche]

Pretty dangerous, trying too hard to make yourself happy. Doesn’t work out well for us with duplicitous politicians and serial killers, after all. In this year’s Brown/Trinity Playwrights Repertory Theatre summer series (through August 3; details at playwrightsrep.com), the “cost and promise caused by our zeal for the right to the pursuit of happiness” is the common element of the trio of plays, according to artistic director Ken Prestininzi. We get to learn vicariously from the experiences of a narcissistic young woman, a shy hunchback, and a Chicago family in turmoil.


Ostensibly the happiest of the lot, the title character of Emily Young’s Melena is too busy bouncing around trying to outrun self-doubt and insecurity to notice if she ever evades them. Directed by Prestininzi, Sarah Tolan-Mee does an admirable job playing Melena with vitality and blind assurance rather than providing a chink in her armor for pathos to wedge in. She is halfway through her 20s and hasn’t yet become the artist she wants to be — one canvas with a single blue streak is all she’s come up with. She wants to go back to Russia, where she was born; maybe studying art there might take hold through genetic affinity.

Melena is so tunnel-visioned that she can’t remember marrying her selfless husband Jack (Drew Ledbetter) a few days before. Others entertainingly come into the picture, such as fun-loving Sheila (Alexandra Lawrence), our stand-in as voyeur; potential boyfriend Labo (Leicester Landon); and memories of her adoring high school boyfriend Jesse (Andrew Polec) and her sinister father Nikolai (Mark Cohen). But the proceedings wander out of focus, and we need a better reason to remain interested in Melena than her unencumbered-by-substance search for meaning.

The Hunchback of Seville

The representative background event behind The Hunchback of Seville, by Charise Castro Smith, pulsing like a diseased heartbeat, is Spain’s slaughter of millions of Arawak Indians at the turn of the 16th century. With that madness established as ordinary, the rest of this madcap play can proceed with logical absurdity, the excesses of imperialistic mindsets roaring forward full-throttle (directed by Taibi Magar).

MADCAP ROYALTY Brown and Morgan in 'Hunchback.'


The psychology of imperial privilege, which scales down recognizably to ordinary entitlement, is under examination here. It’s not the dignified Queen Isabella (Alston Brown) who acts arrogantly but her daughter, Juana (Bridget Saracino). Smith wrote a fascinatingly extreme character, and Saracino is magnificently hilarious in propelling her into being, by turns explosively manic in hyperactive baby-talking play and abruptly immobile when threatening coldly. Liz Morgan is Maxima, the hunchback sister of the queen, unambitious in her comfortable tower, in love with her math tutor, Talib Faruz (Daniel Duque-Estrada), who had been exhiled to the New World for making her too smart.

Things could have happened as depicted here, proceeding toward a just and happy ending before snapping back on the over-stretched elastic band of power-powered historical devolution. If only history were entertaining as well as depressing.

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