On his website, Charles Mee says his play “Paradise Park” is about a theme park that “opens up into all of America.” But the great reward of this script — and Daniel Fish’s lyrical production — is that it offers so much more than a statement on national identity. It makes familiar truths about love so strange and surprising that they become freshly affecting.
The play closes Mee’s season-in-residence at Signature Theater, and as always, it relies on his collage style of writing. Linear stories about various couples falling in love abut everything from a discussion of cheerleading to a choreographed hip-hop dance. That structure is echoed by the theme-park set, where all the characters have decided to live. Designed by David Zinn, it bursts with stuffed animals, a bumper car, a cotton candy machine and whatever falls down from the ceiling.
Mee and Fish adroitly exploit the setting’s potential, giving the entire production a wild, imaginative energy. While a group of men complain about social mores, they put fruitcakes in a giant slingshot and catapult them across the stage. When a teenager named Darling (Vanessa Aspillaga) wants private time with her older flame (Paul Mullins), she inflates a giant castle and crawls inside. It’s like watching the unleashed id of people tired of being normal.
Mee then deepens the chaos by showing us what it hides. Tucked between the dance routines and video projections of roller-coaster riders are stories about people who cannot face their guilt, shame and loneliness. Most prominent are Darling’s parents Nancy (Veanne Cox) and Morton (Christopher McCann), who moved her to the park because they ruined their other daughter’s life and wanted to spare their remaining child.
In a primal performance, Cox uses several monologues to let Nancy’s emotions build until they almost tear her apart. And in one of the play’s many coups de theatre, she tries to shoot her husband like he’s a metal duck in a carnival booth. Her expression when the bullets keep missing is a raw scrape of pain.
In moments like these, it becomes clear that the entire park exists to keep the truth at bay. More than just America, it’s any cultural or personal system we use to avoid who we are. Secrets keep bursting forth, though, and the tools of distraction become central to facing reality.
Not every tale is bitter, however. In a bit of romantic comedy, Benny (William Jackson Harper) just wants to date Ella (Laurie Williams), but she keeps backing away, on roller skates.
Fish and the ensemble expertly juggle the tones of the major plotlines: Sometimes slapstick turns immediately into catharsis, which delivers a cold shock, and sometimes the transition is subtle, letting new emotions bubble up naturally. It’s easy to savor these surprises because the artists are in total control.
When the production reaches its generous conclusion, it’s obvious there’s been a method to the madness. We have to experience the theme park before we can truly appreciate what’s waiting beyond it.