By Philip Ridley; Directed by Sybille Bruun-Moss
Produced by Brave Artist Collective
Off Off Broadway, Solo Show
Ran through 3.26.17
The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk Street
by Adrienne Urbanski on 4.2.17
Lexie Braverman in Dark Vanilla Jungle.
BOTTOM LINE: An unusual and compelling script from Philip Ridley, paired with a knockout performance from Lexie Braverman, makes this a powerful show.
“Sometimes life is so painful you have to, what’s the word? Camouflage. You have to camouflage things a bit or it’d all be too unbearable,” says Andrea, the damaged and delusional young woman. She is at the center of Dark Vanilla Jungle, a play which laments how the world is not a safe place for women, especially teenaged girls. Andrea camouflages her dreary world, romanticizing her childhood of neglect and poverty. It is this same romanticizing that also leads Andrea down a dark path, when she accepts the sexual advances of a criminal, who promises her that his sexual interest in her is in fact love.
Andrea’s story is told not chronologically, but in pieces as she jumps forward and backward trying to explain how she arrived at her ending. It begins with Andrea as a child, spending a cheerful day with her mother that ends with being stung by a wasp; her mother turns her fear and pain into something magical and happy. This strategy foreshadows Andrea’s own tendency to over-romanticize and find magic in her grim reality. At the age of fifteen, Andrea and her best friend Emma are picked up by two well-dressed men in a McDonald’s who take them for cocktails in a club, dazzling them with a glimpse at a more glamorous lifestyle. The men’s promises of love turn out to be empty as they use the young girls as sexual playthings, drugging them and allowing their friends to have their way with them, leaving the girls bloody and injured. When Andrea spots her supposed fiancé out at a shopping mall with his wife and children she realizes the truth about what has happened to her and she slips into a dark and paranoid mindset where she views every male as a potential danger, noticing the sexual interest grown men direct at her and wondering what they would do to her if they were given a chance. She runs home in the dark, imagining attackers behind every bush and in every shadow.
Andrea’s own mother, once a seemingly loving parent, abandons Andrea as soon as Andrea’s father is released from prison. Andrea is reduced to hiding from her parents who clearly wish for no evidence of her existence, until one day she is left to the care of her grandmother, known simply as Mrs. V. The fact that Andrea’s mother would so easily abandon everything for the love of a man ingrains in Andrea the belief that she needs a man’s affection to be validated and must submit to a man’s authority. Her pursuit of love in her damaged state leads her to fantasizing she is married to a comatose soldier, the only man she deems unthreatening.
As this play is a monologue, its strength depends on the performer, who must create this entire world alone onstage. Luckily, Lexie Braverman is up to the task, showcasing her impressive acting skills and effectively capturing the fragile emotional terrain of a young woman wronged by the world. Braverman starts off as a friend sharing a story and then begins to angrily defend her crimes, as though the audience is a jury, directly addressing those in the front row. As her character gains excitement she speeds through parts of her tale, convincingly capturing the many twists and turns of her character’s emotional and psychological state. Sadly the acoustics of the Flamboyan Theater at the Clemente are not the best, and Braverman’s voice was sometimes eclipsed by the noises of outside traffic and the movements of audience members. The sound effects, which sometimes also had their own volume issues, were effective in creating different environments as the bare production does not have props or a set, relying simply on Braverman’s talent to set the stage.
Philip Ridley’s powerful script offers a compelling commentary on societal misogyny and patriarchal power struggles (many a women’s studies major could have a field day with this rich, layered script). However, Andrea’s delusional and paranoid state sometimes eclipses the story, and a bit more clarity could create a better platform for the ideas Ridley so smartly showcases through the character and her circumstances. Dark Vanilla Jungle is a powerful and unique piece that successfully merges a phenomenal actress with a well-written tale that reflects our grim reality.
(Dark Vanilla Jungle played at the Flamboyan Theater at the Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street, through March 26, 2017. The running time was 90 minutes. Performances were Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 5. Tickets were $20.)
Dark Vanilla Jungle is by Philip Ridley. Directed by Sybille Bruun-Moss. Set Design is by Max Kaufman. Lighting Design is by Jason Fok. Sound Design is by Ella Chuaqui.
The cast is Lexie Braverman.