BOTTOM LINE: In Flipzoids, written by Ralph B. Peña, a beautiful centerpiece performance by OBIE winner Ching Valdes-Aran and an inspired set design elevate a flawed play into a worthwhile production.
Ma Yi Theater Company first produced Flipzoids in 1996 at Theater for the New City, an off off Broadway institution in the East Village. The production featured direction and set design by Loy Arcenas and a lead performance by Ching Valdes-Aran, for which she won a best actress OBIE Award. Fifteen years later, the company has paid homage to their own work by reviving not just the play, but the production itself. The current production features the same set design, same lead actress and same director as the 1996 version. This is an unorthodox choice for a theater company, but the artistic director, who also happens to be the playwright, apparently felt good enough about the first production to make a bid for legitimate off Broadway status. Based on the merit of the sensitive, deeply poignant and delightfully funny work of Valdes-Aran, I would agree. However, the overwritten and structurally flawed script intrude on the characters it seeks to portray. They are interesting unto themselves and need to be left well-enough alone to play out their drama, but instead Peña makes the characters narrate their own and the other characters' action, and inserts a bevy of heavy-handed monologues, creating the impression that he doesn't trust himself or the audience to undestand the points he is driving at.
Peña´s subject matter, the divergent perceptions of three Filipino immigrants on the experience of becoming or trying to become American is compelling stuff. There was a great deal of chuckling in recognition on the part of the audience at familiar mannerisms and sayings of Valdes-Aran's character Aying, an elderly woman from the Phillipines who had recently been brought to California by her ambitious America-loving daughter. Apparently, many people in the audience had a Filipino grandmother. The non-Filipinos in the audience, myself included, could still enjoy the universal qualities of a quirky elderly lady, though some of the inside jokes were lost. All of us, however, can relate to the feeling of being 'other,' and a sense of homesickness, alienation and displacement that is part of modern life.
The play is set on a deserted beach in Southern California, and the playing space is made up simply of sand surrounded on four sides by a dark wood boardwalk. The Pacific Ocean is represented by round stone basin filled with water and used by the actors to beautiful effect. Arcenas stages his actors carefully, creating a clean economy of movement that matches the spareness of the space. An onslaught of unnecessary words is the only dissonant element in an otherwise harmonious environment.
Overall, this production is worth seeing for Ching Valdes-Aran's performance alone, especially if you have a grandmother from the old-world, East or West.
(Flipzoids plays through February 6, 2011 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd Street, 4th Floor, between 9th & 10th Avenues. Shows are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30PM, Saturdays at 3PM and 7:30PM, and Sundays 3:00PM. All tickets are $40.00. For tickets visit www.ticketcentral.com or call 212.279.4200. For more information visit ma-yitheatre.org.)