by Richard Dodds
In Bali, where art is religion and religion is art, everyone is an artist. It's a centuries-old concept that also suggests that tradition will harmoniously blend with the new. Lovely, and easier said than done.
Both father and son evoke tradition as they clash in their Balinese village in the main story that unites the around-the-world scenario of Rights of Passage, a new play by Ed Decker and Robert Leone having its world premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Wayan sees in his Bali-flavored Hinduism acceptance for his same-sex longings, while his father can't bend his beliefs that far. The locale may be distant and its culture seems exotic, but the basics of this conflict have abundant parallels in most of our own backyards.
(Photo: Lois Tema)
Decker, NCTC's artistic director, and his husband Leone were spurred by the passage of Prop 8 to take stock of LGBT rights (or lack of) in societies across the globe. Short scenes set in locales ranging from Belgrade to Bangkok and Mississippi to Malawi arise as the central story unfolds. Dozens of interviews and international travels conducted over five years inform Rights of Passage, a thoughtful, sensitive, and surprisingly humorous play.
Directed by Arturo Catricala, this is a handsome production that takes elements of Balinese dance, music, storytelling, and design to lend specific gravity to the familiar new vs. old conflicts of Wayan and his father. Especially delightful are the puppets designed and choreographed by Allison Daniel. They illustrate fables and reality, and can twist our sober expectations of puppetry (and of Bali) when, for example, 10-year-old Wayan, in life-size puppet form, suggests an outing to an Internet cafe. The puppets can also change the dynamics of a horrific scene of rape in Dakar, which becomes less realistically graphic but eerily disturbing when an object we associate with childhood play is being violated.
More often than not, flesh-and-blood actors are portraying with dexterity the international spectrum of characters. The globe-trotting interludes don't necessarily have direct connections to the story set in Bali, yet often work in their own right as mini-dramas of human nature, illustrating lives struggling to find accommodations for their sexualities within their own worlds.
But it is Wayan's story that centers the play, and Jomar Tagatac centers the role with a characterization that is impish, impetuous, and uncompromising. If there can be a second center, it would belong to Michaela Greeley, who, despite wearing a mask, plays Wayan's incisive grandmother communicating a steely warmth. The other six actors play a multitude of roles, including an imprisoned gay couple in Malawi (Dazie Rustin Grego and Anthony Rollins-Mullens), a cranky moon goddess (Desiree Rogers), a homophobic-but-evolving plumber in Walnut Creek (Randall Nakano), Wayan's boyhood friend and grown-up lover (RJ Castaneda), and a German boy (a puppeteering Christopher Morrell) writing to Santa Claus for an Easy-Bake Oven.
Numerous other creative credits deserve acknowledgement, including set designer Kuo-Hao Lo, lighting designer Christian Mejia, costume designer Jorge Hernandez, and prop designer Stacy Bock. All are part of the impressive team that has clearly poured blood, sweat, tears, and laughter into Rights of Passage, a play that offers its cautious optimism on a tightrope.
Rights of Passage will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through Sept. 16. Tickets are $25-$45. Call 861-8972 or go to www.nctcsf.org.