- OnStage New York Critic
“Troubled teenager” stories seem to be made for the stage: full of drama and self-search, they tend to be raw and bold. At least this is what “Alligator,” a play written by Hillary Bettis and directed by Elena Araoz, strives for. And they partially succeed in setting the audience onto this dark and bloody existential journey, but not without the help of a strong cast, beautifully haunting scenic and light design, and meditative live music. Unfortunately, the production lacks sharpness of the essential elements: writing and directing. The play seems unnecessary long with one too many rape scenes. And yet “Alligator” is remarkable and worth seeing.
The intriguing premise introduces us to six youngsters whose lives intertwine against the backdrop of the Florida Everglades in 1999. There is a sweet and naïve new comer, Dianne (Lexi Lapp), a visiting college football player, Danny (Julian Eijah Martinez), a transient and reckless traveler, Lucy (Talene Manahon), a new army recruit, Merick (Samuel H. Levine) and the orphan twins, Emerald (Lindsay Rico) and Ty (Dakota Granados), that are stuck in the Everglades forever. Like different streams of water, some of them pure, some of them murky, they all flow into the same swamp of tears, blood and whiskey in their search for love and understanding.
We first meet Emerald and Ty, who struggle to survive by continuing their father’s business, an alligator wrestling show. The play opens with a fiery introduction by Ty in which he explains their tough situation. The theater audience, now at the alligator show, cheers and screams like “pigs at a slaughterhouse” on Ty’s command, ready for some bloody action. But instead of a gator show we are presented with its preview, Em’s hypnotic dance. She jumps into a wrestling pit filled with water ankle-high and, facing the tall wooden gate, she starts to summon the beast of the swamps.
The smoke is writhing under the celling of a chamber theater; the water is splashing in every direction. The red wig slides down and her own tangled, dark hair falls on her face as Em moves to the rhythms of the music, written and performed by Daniel Ocanto (percussion/drums), Graham Ulincy (guitar, synthesizer) and Sean Smith (trumpet, keyboard). This strong, emotionally charged and visually grasping opening scene establishes the fight with the inner demons as a main topic of the play. Lindsay Rico is very good in her portrayal of Emerald, a tough yet vulnerable, passionate yet reserved, child of a swamp.
There are some beautifully choreographed fights in the show (UnkleDave’s Fight-House). Including the fight between Em and Rex (Bobby Moreno), a guy with a giant alligator puppet on his head and back. No offence to Jessica Scott, who executed the gator with astonishing realism and subtle sarcasm (check out the trash sticking out of his amputated paw) but the character of Rex, with his undefined nature and lengthy existential monologues, looks completely out of place. The idea to embody a “force of nature”, an “inner demon” or a “drunk hallucination” in the form of a dude with a puppet attached to his back reminds me of a high school theater, even though the entire production is very professional.
The scenic design, by Arnulfo Maldonado, is one of the most impressive works I have seen lately. There is a wooden wall behind the audience with a tall ladder leading to a door, where Em climbs. The necessity to turn your head around to see it brings the entire space into play and puts the audience in the middle of the action. On the stage there is a round pit filled with water at the bottom and two low walls marking the border between the stage and the audience. The amount of surfaces allows for a dynamic staging, which could be utilized even more. The water in the pit splashes, creating natural visual effects and adding to the nuanced sound design, by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca, as actors walk, dance and fight in it.
The scenes take place in different locations but everything happens in the same set. The only thing that changes is the opening and the closing of the wooden gate, behind which the musicians are located. Yet it doesn’t seem like a budget or space limitation, but a clever and elaborate decision to present the set as a place of offering to the ancient gods. The impression gets spoiled a bit by the fact that the “powerful and dark something” is represented by a guy wearing a giant gator as a backpack.
“Alligator” runs through December 18th at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street and 10th Avenue) Tickets ($35) are available online at www.newgeorges.org or by calling 1-800-838- 3006.