Heaven Forbid (s)!
nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
August 9, 2008
Unlike the intermediate level of the afterlife imagined by Dante, a quasi-hell filled with both grueling punishments and a persistent feeling of hope trapped beneath the frozen nether-regions of Satan himself, the FringeNYC production of Heaven Forbid(s)! imagines Purgatory as the area right outside of the gates of Heaven. Perhaps this is even more torturous than the excoriating environment Dante imagined: the semi-damned souls are tantalizingly close to where they want to be, within shouting distance of a God whom they don't understand, or who doesn't understand them. It's an interesting idea, but, unfortunately, Marco Antonio Rodriguez's play finds itself hanging in the same perilous state: close to what it wants to be, but not quite there yet.
Gamely and confidently performed by Rodriguez and actress Rhianna Mack, Heaven Forbid(s)! is essentially a series of character-based vignettes, usually performed solo by one of the two actors, about the souls trapped outside of the pearly gates. We hear their life and death stories: how they were outcasts in life, and how they are (almost all of them) not surprised to find themselves outcasts in the afterlife, as well. The performance style is loose, close to improv at times, with a fair amount of audience interaction thrown in. (Only once was an audience member taken onstage, but there's a lot of call-and-response, and a tiny bit of jostling, so if that's not your cup of tea, sit towards the back.)
Besides this loose and entertaining energy, however, is a pervading sense of arbitrariness. As a dramatic piece, there is a lot about Heaven Forbid(s)! that just doesn't hold up. Several of the character pieces, while engaging and certainly fun, have nothing but an occasionally brief reference to their existential plight, and exist solely as set pieces for some other idea. For instance, one of the characters is a grief counselor who teaches techniques for fake tears—I enjoyed watching her spiel, but I never felt like I was watching a trapped soul stuck outside of her eternal reward. Or Rodriquez's portrayal of God as a "Cholo gang-banger": it was quirky and unique, but I spent the whole time wondering why.
Looking at the program, one of the first things I noticed is that the production doesn't have a director listed. Either the actors directed themselves, or there was some communal helming going on, but it no doubt contributed to the undisciplined feel of the piece. Part of the production's charm is its raw, fringe-y energy, but a push in the other direction would help immensely.
I must say, though, there was one moment of absolute transcendence, and it came from the least likely of places. One of Mack's characters, a pimp with a lost love and an affinity for Edith Piaf, was an unequivocal success in relaying the message and feel it seems Rodriguez is going for. Absurd though it may sound, Percy the Pimp's search for his "bitch" (his preferred nomenclature) in the afterlife is fascinating and terribly moving, and Mack plays him with expert ease and grace. That section alone is worth the price of admission, and it completely confirmed my belief: there is a very serious, very entertaining, and very poignant exploration of what it means to be an outsider inside this production.