"Bitter Fruit" at Upstream is a powerful melodrama with a cast to match
By Steve Callahan
American theaters are pretty much xenophobic; they rarely bring us plays from outside the English-speaking world. Philip Boehm’s Upstream Theater has, since 2005, been blessing St. Louis stages with top-quality professional productions of deeply thoughtful plays from around the world—many have been U. S. premieres, some world-premieres.
Upstream has just opened “Bitter Fruit,” by Argentine playwright Héctor Levy-Daniel, in a new translation by Mr. Boehm.
As usual at Upstream, the cast is splendid. It is made up of some of the best veteran actors in St. Louis.
Beautiful Spanish guitar music fills the hall. It’s played by Lliam Christy, seated off to one side outside the playing area. His music underscores the emotions in some scenes, like a fine film score.
We see an elegant room in a wealthy home in Argentina. There’s a large arched window with polished carved wood where “leading” would be in the glass; there’s a beautiful door within a stone archway. Scene designer Patrick Huber is such a master. (And that door really slams!) Scenic artist Cameron Tesson contributes to the rich feeling of time and place.
The family fortune has come from their cotton plantation and mill. But Daddy is dead, daughter Maria is in charge, and there is labor strife. The fields have been burned, the machines sabotaged. Jennifer Theby-Quinn plays Maria with an icy hardness.
Teresa, Maria’s mother, is played by Michelle Burdette-Elmore. I called her “a knockout performer” when I saw her in “Whoopee” some thirty-two years ago. She’s not dancing quite so fast now, but she’s still a knockout performer. And such an expressive face! Teresa has odd little dementia-like touches; she has vivid memories from long ago—but are they memories? Or myths?
Into this mix comes Jane Paradise, as Luisa. She’s a rather mysterious housekeeper—but who hired her? She’s cautious, almost fearful. She’s a wonderful cook—but she’s hiding something. Is she a spy for the strikers? I first saw Ms. Paradise twenty-five years ago in “Off the Map”; I said then “She has a voice that I could listen to forever.” She’s only gotten better. Her Luisa is restrained, respectful—but with such inner things happening.
There’s a vague atmosphere of surreality. There are hints of Pinter, or even Ionesco—people don’t quite communicate, there’s hidden menace.
We flash back to see Maria as a high-school student with her sweetheart. The adult Maria simply sheds her business suit—and with it some decades. In antique undergarments she becomes young and playful and bubbly. The boy, Pedro, is the son of a worker. The parents must not find out!
Isaiah Di Lorenzo is Pedro. In this scene he has transformed himself into a wonderfully, tenderly innocent teen-ager. As always, with his dancer’s background, Di Lorenzo is as graceful as a panther.
Of course the parents do find out.
In a later scene Maria (as her adult self) is confronted with a grim and determined middle-aged Pedro, now a leader of the workers. They meet almost as strangers. She offers to pay the workers in vouchers; he insists on cash.
All through the play the labor violence rises—and Maria continually presses Luisa about her secret. When Luisa finally reveals it she is cast out of the household for the awful truth she knows.
The play ends very curiously. Problems seem to be resolved without explanation. The machines are fixed, the crops replanted, the workers are to be paid bonuses—and Maria and Teresa talk of vacationing by the sea. Did I miss some deus ex machina? I was reminded of Melina Mercouri in “Never on Sunday”: she thinks that the Oedipus story ends with a family picnic by the sea.
There is one acting oddity in Ms. Theby-Quinn’s portrayal of the adult Maria: she speaks for the most part very deliberately—even in scenes where a frenzied pace seems more fitting. She can do it; we saw her explode with energy and pace in “Iphegenia in Splott” last year. So this was a puzzling choice by actor and director.
Costumer Michele Siler clothes the cast with her usual excellent attention to period and detail. Lighting by Steve Carmichael and properties by Cecile Entz rise to very high standards maintained by Upstream.
Overall “Bitter Fruit” is a powerful melodrama with a strange aura and with some tropes that are long tried and true. It draws from Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” and even from that grand old pot-boiler “East Lynne.”
It's important for a director to know what a play is about. It’s equally important to know what it’s not about. In his program note Mr. Boehm mentions as pertinent the “whole campaigns of misinformation [and] efforts to subvert our own democracy.” But the lies which are revealed at the core of this play are only family lies, and have only the wispiest of political connections. The classic trope truly at the center of this play is that from “The Prince and the Pauper.” Can a low-born seize a place in the upper class? To mankind the boundaries of tribe have always been desperately important. Here it’s the rich/poor boundary which is addressed. But race, religion, gender, Blue vs. Red—these are tribes which much be defended at all cost. And we seem to be inventing new tribes at a quickening pace.
So—perhaps this play is a little political after all (but only slightly more so than every play is).
Upstream Theater’s production of “Bitter Fruit” continues at the Marcelle through October 29.