nytheatre.com review by Matt Freeman
October 28, 2005
Between Mark Medoff’s Stumps and the mission of its current producer Nicu’s Spoon, there are some overt parallels. Both offer diversity in droves, both seek to challenge conventional views about how to have a discussion about diversity, and both Medoff and Nicu’s Spoon have a vested interest in the use of American Sign Language.
These parallels diverge in a large way during the production, though. Nicu’s Spoon is a new and idealistic enterprise, rough around the edges but sparkling with earnestness and energy. Medoff, who wrote Children of a Lesser God and the recent Broadway mess Prymate, seems disingenuous in this play. Stumps is unfocused and mean-spirited, standing in stark contrast to the idealism that is currently propping it up.
In Stumps, two Vietnam veterans, living in the Southwest United States, decide to turn a script one has written into a pornographic film. In doing so, they invite a porn actress who goes by Fawn Sierra into their home; and more importantly her handler of sorts, the Reverend Calvin Rhodes. As if they were in a play, these two characters waste little time in exposing and attacking the values of their hosts. I would call them bulls in a china shop, if the play were more delicate. There is nary a moment in this play where someone isn’t degrading themselves or the people around them. There is rape, there is blood, there is emotional violence of the most uncomfortable sort, there is drug abuse but there is never a sense of much at stake. Despite the fact that Medoff invokes Vietnam, impairment, and the Reagan era, he does little to raise the discourse above the level of "coarse."
The actors far outperform the script. Playing the “stumps” themselves are Alvaro Sena and T.J. Mannix. Sena is saddled with the script's toughest role, Jerry Marcus. This character is at once acerbic, sympathetic, artistic, and boorish, all while confined to a wheelchair. Sena proves up to the challenge when the play needs him most, in quiet conversation, although he tends to overplay his Jerry’s rage. Mannix’s Stephen Ryder is so essentially decent that the juxtaposition of his dreams and business (he runs an adult theatre) work to heartbreaking effect. As Stephen’s Vietnamese wife, Lin, Jovinna Chan is utterly believable and powerful, even in circumstances where her character's actions defy logic. I look forward to seeing her work elsewhere.
Karam K. Puri plays the endlessly venomous Reverend Calvin Rhodes. It’s an odd role for Puri, who is an Indian actor. As a character, Rhodes expresses racist views rather insistently, and goes so far as to indicate sympathy for the American Nazi Party. While I’m sure there’s an argument for this sort of casting against type, it took me out of the play. It made me say “oh, this role was written for a Caucasian actor” a few too many times. I would feel the same way, I’m sure, if a white actor were cast as a Black Panther.
That being said, Puri is also in the role that is almost unwatchable. The actor has charm and energy, but Calvin Rhodes is a loud, unappealing, unattractive villain who shouts over or talks around almost every character on the stage, with little motivation that was apparent. He just seems to hate the other characters in the play, and that makes for little drama except “Will anyone finally shoot this guy and shut him up?”
As Fawn Sierra or “Emily,” Thea McCartan takes some extremely difficult turns, playing the best moments carefully. Her progression as she rehearses a scene with Jerry from porn performer to honest actress is one of the show's highlights. It’s a shame she finds herself wading through so many clichés. Her character is a drug-addicted porn star who is hopelessly insecure, smarter than she appears, very, very nice and in an abusive relationship. Short version: Hooker with a heart of gold just waiting to be saved.
Despite my misgivings about the play, the company itself is worth exploring. I didn’t see their production of To Kill A Mockingbird, but after seeing Stumps, I wish I had. The staging of director Stephanie Barton-Farcas doubles speaking roles with on-stage performing doubles who speak in sign language. It’s a sparkling idea, and in moments, you can see its true potential. The signing performers (Darren Frazier, Tyson Jenette, Paul Savas, Pamela O. Mitchell, and Kate Breen) are intricately worked into the main action. The doubles are extensions of the actors, and in many cases, are cast as gender opposites, creating some intriguing stage pictures. In fact, Nicu’s Spoon is to be commended for the sheer amount of diversity in this small cast.
There is still work for Barton-Farcas to do, in places, with this evolving technique. The stage can become crowded with characters rather quickly, and it was difficult for me to know where to focus at times. With four actors standing close together performing a two-character scene, Barton-Farcas can either dazzle you with invention, or leave you a little overwhelmed with the flurry.
It’s hard to recommend Stumps, as the play is such an unpleasant experience by itself, but easy to recommend this company. Nicu’s Spoon's staging, mission for diversity and ASL techniques are powerful and will undoubtedly bring them fantastic success. I’ll be happily coming to their next performance, and hoping for a play that does them more credit.