In its New York premiere, Jorge Ignacio Cortinas’ surreal “Blind Mouth Singing” behaves like a time-release hallucinogen, gradually increasing in strangeness right through to its oddball ending. Director Ruben Polendo’s wonderfully illustrative staging for the National Asian American Theater Company gives the play’s abstractions and subtleties a real, physical heft, though its narrative direction wanders a little in the second act.
Set designer Zach Zirlin has built a striking and utilitarian playground for Cortinas’ grim fairy tale: On a floor made of thin plywood panels, the retiring Reiderico (Jon Norman Schneider) shrinks from a difficult life with his cold mother (Mia Katigbak) and bullying brother Gordi (Orville Mendoza).
As the family carries the boards around the stage to symbolize various chores, Reiderico’s aunt Bolivia (Sue Jean Kim) tries to encourage him to take a more active role in his own life, but all Reiderico wants to do is talk to his only friend, Lucero (Alexis Camins), who lives at the bottom of a well.
It’s unclear what, exactly, Lucero is — a demon, perhaps, or some kind of incubus, but the play pointedly refuses to explain how he survives in the well or how he got there. And, his desire to escape into the world above prompts a nameless dread.
Polendo emphasizes Lucero’s ominous presence by placing him front and center on a wooden chair with his back to the audience. A long rope is coiled around the edge of his chair like a sleeping snake. The well itself sits in front of him, a long, shallow trough filled with an inch or so of water, representing the distance between Lucero and Reiderico, who stands at the far end to talk to him.
As Lucero presides over the play’s first act, he and the audience witness Gordi’s athletic cruelties to Reiderico, punctuated by Adam Cochran’s emphatic drumming. Cochran, whose trap set sounds like it’s made exclusively of kitchenware, gives Gordi a frenetic tap-whack-bonk pattern when he’s running around or behaving violently, and a more sinister, slow clanking when he’s merely thinking about beating his brother or lurking in the corner.
As Reiderico moves back toward the well to release Lucero, Cortinas cleverly creates mounting tension with the winds of an approaching hurricane illustrated by a huge industrial fan at the back of the stage. When Reiderico pulls his “friend” out of the well, it feels as if the real horror is about to dawn.
It isn’t, though. Cortinas pulls a bait-and-switch with Lucero and Reiderico in the second act, and it’s difficult to say whether the twist is a good thing or not. On one hand, it wrong-foots the audience so effectively that virtually every event after intermission comes as a surprise. On the other, it forces Cortinas to develop Lucero’s character in a number of ways so subtle they are almost invisible. Admirably, Cortinas values nuance and irony over the clash of titans, but he doesn’t quite achieve his goals here.
That failure isn’t fatal, however. Much of “Blind Mouth Singing” has a crisp and engaging theatrical wit, and, while it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise of a poignant finale, the production opens a rare vista onto strange and fascinating theatrical territory.