Baltimore theatre is extremely fortunate that Rapid Lemon Productions, now in its 10th year, is providing a venue for original writing and nurturing diverse artistic expression. Their latest offering, “Her, Across the River,” is the work of equity-stage manager and playwright, Hope Villanueva. The performance at Motor House is the first, full production of the play after workshops and readings in the late 2010s.
Each member of the company participates beautifully in Villanueva’s transcultural and metaphysical exploration of existence…should not be missed.
Mixing elements of Thai Buddhism and Ancient Greek mythology, the play centers on the paralleling experiences of Umbra and Asnee (an American woman and a Thai apprentice monk), and their fallen family, Talin and Devi (Umbra’s daughter and Asnee’s sister). In simplest terms, it is a play about finding peace in both this life and the next, as Talin/Devi are unable to cross over the river to eternal rest until their living counterparts accept their loss. The myth of Demeter and Persephone figures central to the story—Demeter’s eternal futile desire to recover her lost child providing counterpoint to the Buddhist admonishment that enlightenment can only come from letting go.
What makes Villanueva’s play intriguing is its emphasis on movement and minimalist imagery as storytelling. Thai and Greek rituals, forces of nature, the souls of the dead, and an earthquake at a club play out as intricate, stylized movement with elements of ceremonial dance. Supernatural presences, the river (which may be Styx or any of the many rivers that world religions hold as separating the world of the living from that of the dead), Cerberus (the guard dog of the Greek underworld), and Phra Mai should not be missed (the Thai Buddhist Goddess of the Earth) appear both metaphorically and materially—the playwright encouraging current and future productions to use any tricks the artists like in casting and designing the play. The script, with its rich layers of world religion and commentary on loss, longing, and the inevitable alone, make “Her, Across the River,” worth seeing.
In terms of casting, director CJay Phillip has more than fulfilled the playwright’s intent with an ensemble that is diverse in both identity and talent. The heavily female character list provides a wide variety of opportunities to showcase skilled performers. In this production, the poise and fire of Donna Ann Ward (delivering the grief-stricken but righteous rhetoric of Demeter) and the creative focus of Jenna Sharples (immersed in the physicality of the canine god-figure, Cerberus) function comfortably on the same stage. In the midst of virtuoso moments of theatricality, Yodelle Tan, Peri Walker, Alexis Skinner, and Sage Chng-Lim (as the semi-realistic characters of Talin, Devi, Persephone, Umbra, and Asnee respectively) connect the viewer to the fundamental theme of the play—that no unverifiable promise of an afterlife nor any detached rhetoric about renouncing earthly desires can truly relieve the pain of living. Each member of the company participates beautifully in Villanueva’s transcultural and metaphysical exploration of existence.
There are some conflicts between the author’s intent and the production that do not work as well. Philip has chosen a meditative pace for the production, no doubt to emphasize the grief and emptiness Umbra, Asnee, and their otherworldly kin are experiencing. However, the first half moves so slowly that it undercuts any search for answers that might motivate their journey. More urgency to the search, as well as eliminating what is in this review’s opinion a superfluous intermission for a 75-minute play, would better move the audience toward the answers the play offers.
The production design is appropriately minimalist, with strips of blue tulle serving as the water for a pond or river in an otherwise empty space. JR Schroyer provides set and projection design with a trio of screens establishing locations from the jungle of Thailand to the afterworld, and setting the open space of the stage in between a Buddhist shrine and a fishing pond. Costumes by Deana Fisher Brill are archetypal with the uttarasanga robe of the Thai monk, the peplos of the Greek citizen, and the leather pants of a partier. Ari Juno’s lighting includes the right subtle color palette, but illumination needs more attention (jarring lines on actor faces and shadowed areas). Pomegranates, the three-sided Cerberus mask, and a flipping fish are some of the small but more charming details of the design, likely speaking to the strength of collaboration at the heart of Rapid Lemon’s productions.
“Her, Across the River” is an opportunity for Baltimore audiences to see, in real time, the fruits of exploring the universality of human experience through the specifics of culture and identity. It is also a great chance to support the work of a company that is has been bringing these important stories to the stage for a decade and should not be missed.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 30 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Mild adult themes.
“Her, Across the River” runs through June 26, 2022 at Motor House, 120 W. North Ave., Baltimore, MD 21201. For more information and tickets, click here. Masks are required in accordance with Baltimore City guidelines. For more information, go to the Motor House Baltimore website or the Rapid Lemon Productions website.