After John Patrick Shanley’s outrageously funny I Am Your Masseuse (reviewed here), I was anxious to see what he would come up with next. The Oscar-, Tony-, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Doubt and Moonstruck has never rested on his laurels. Now Nylon Fusion Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of his latest play, Candlelight.
It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what Candlelight is. “Tragicomic fairy-tale love story” might come close. There’s comedy, tragedy, love – even a real fairy. It’s also a searching exploration of torn-up families and awakening sexuality, and a showcase for compelling dance sequences, both joyous and erotic, by choreographer Tatyana Kot. Creatively directed by Lori Kee, it’s fun and delightful, and intermittently deep. Yet it also left me in a small way dissatisfied.
The fantasy worlds of 10-year-olds can be dense and scary regions. We find ourselves first with Esperanza (Ivette Dumeng), holed up in her room, the noises of a frightening world a thin pane of glass away. Products of her fevered and traumatized yet still brightly hopeful pre-pubescent imagination emerge from her toy chest, window, and any other available aperture: a militant fairy, an emotionally fragile mirror, the figure of her suicidal mother, the violent one of her embittered, abusive father as the Devil, and more. Yet, giddy from a life-changing birthday-party encounter with classmate Tito (Marc Reign), Esperanza enacts a city kid’s hilarious take on Romeo and Juliet. Kids are complicated.
Tito, her Romeo, just as smitten, chooses as his confidante his unpopular schoolmate Paulie (a beautifully touching performance by John Cencio Burgos). Paulie’s own story forms an important subplot.
But it’s in these kids’ talk of relationships and hints at sexuality that the play loses some of its grip. In a fantastical story, it’s fine for adult actors to play children, and these artists are very good at it. But the characters talk of weighty matters like adolescent teens do. Maybe Shanley chose to focus on 10-year-olds to keep the looming monster of physical sexuality in a dimly imagined future, so that the play could sustain a child-fantasy aura. But some of their talk rings false.
Still, I was captivated. The story is sad and beautiful, the acting superb, the dancing divine, the set changes magical. Among the excellent cast, Dumeng stands out. Her Esperanza charms and compels, shining in full life at every moment, in every expression and in every word of body and spoken language. Reign’s charismatic Tito earns rapt attention too, wrestling with the conflicting demands of ego and friendship while drolly plagued by a literal demon in his own home.
Also tragically compelling is Darlene Tejeiro in the smaller role of Esperanza’s deceased mother. And Christina Toth – who was so out-there good in Shanley’s I Am Your Masseuse, referenced above (though best known for her role in TV’s Orange Is the New Black) – transfixes as the dancing, swashbuckling, loudmouthed fairy Mabel.