Playwriting is no easy craft. A novice may crank out a good screenplay or even a best selling novel, but I have never encountered a good first play. (Though I have come across a good 37th draft of a “first play”.) Playwright Coco Blignaut, if her bio is accurate, has only one children’s book to her name and no other work for the stage. This is not good.
That she is also playing the lead is worse.
That she has chosen to adapt a biographical novel takes us to “Def-Con Four”.
And that the subject is a historical figure…well, abandon all hope ye who enter the Lillian Theatre.
The central character of the work is Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada the sixteenth century Roman Catholic nun and Spanish mystic. Beatified in 1614, Saint Teresa, patron of headache sufferers, Croatia and chess players, has inspired artists from Bernini to Banksy, and now Blignaut.
Adapted from the novel Sister Teresa by Bárbara Mujica, there are fundamental flaws in the work that glare out at an audience from the opening scene. Novels can begin at the birth of their subject –
“I am born. Whether I shall turn out the hero of my own life—“
And then 897 pages later we are shown the answer.
Plays are a different beast, best begun at a moment which heralds the establishment of the work’s primary conflict. Hence, in The Miracle Worker we neither begin with Anne Sullivan’s life at the orphanage, nor at the birth of Helen Keller, but with the arrival of Anne Sullivan at the Keller house.
Shakespeare was the master of when to open a play. With a ghost, a ship in the grip of a tempest, with three witches on a battlefield, or a deformed villain proclaiming his murderous intent; each begins the play with the introduction of the conflict that will carry us through to the final curtain.
You can pretty much accept this concept as one carved into stone:
“Thou shall not start “Zoo Story” at the zoo.”
Ms. Blignaut begins her play in a dress shop thick with exposition, but bare of her lead character. She then employs a cinematic convention – and one always problematic on stage – the flashback. From the dress shop thick with exposition, but bare of her lead character we are taken to…the dress shop thick with exposition, but bare of her lead character sixteen years earlier. From here we fast forward to the third scene which shows us the protagonist in conflict. Unfortunately that conflict is a pillow fight.
Structuring a play is not unlike designing one of those elaborate domino patterns laid out over the floor of a gymnasium. The first tile tips over striking the second tile, tipping it over to strike the third and on and on. The mechanics are essentially the same in playwriting except the tiles are the scenes.
A ghost resembling the dead king of Denmark appears on a castle battlement to Horatio. Horatio decides to inform the son of the dead king about what he has seen.
In the court of King Claudius, the still grieving Hamlet is approached by an old school acquaintance who reports the supernatural experience he has witnessed. Hamlet resolves to go that very night and stand watch on the battlement himself.
That night the ghost appears again and beckons Hamlet to follow him. Against the pleading of his friends Hamlet does; one scene falls forward pushing the next scene forward, and on and on until the rest is silence.
That structure is not present in “God’s Gypsy”. Instead we are shown scenes which are mainly disconnected from each other. Ms. Blignaut seems to have selected events in the life of Saint Teresa she found interesting for her scenes, rather than choosing scenes in the interest of her drama. If I may refer again to Shakespeare (and in speaking of drama is there a better reference point?) the attack by the pirates on the ship carrying Hamlet to England, and the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildstern are both very dramatic events, but Shakespeare knew they had no place in his play.
The pity of this production is that every design aspect of the staging is really quite exceptional. Joel Daavid as director achieves some exquisite moments on a marvelous set of his own creation. Leigh Allen’s lighting and Chris Moscatiello’s sound design can not be faulted, and Michael Mullen’s costumes are the best I’ve seen on an L.A. stage this year. Lili Haydn provides the play’s music which in and of itself is almost worth the price of admission. Her masterful and melodious violin solo joined to Daavid’s stylishly choreographed parodos opens the first act on a high point that the evening never realizes again.
Nor is the cast without talent. Pat Satcher, Tsulan Cooper, Daniel de Weldon, Carole Weyers and even Ms. Blignaut all have moments not so much within the play as in spite of it.
One is left perplexed by this production, struggling with whether to praise producer Mike Abramson for orchestrating such a splendid job of theatrical gift wrapping or to hurl abuse at him for not realizing he was wrapping an empty box. Sadly, in the end, all the fine moments and all the good work put into “God’s Gypsy” are reduced to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.