Tuesday, May 15, 2007

fig (a): the heart

The heart beats approximately 100,000 times a day and 40 million times a year. The left side of the heart could shoot water 6 feet in the air.

These are just two of the bits of information from the program of what is perhaps one of the most original plays you’re likely to see, “fig (a): the heart,” written and directed by Emily Davis, about an organ which, the author points out is, both “meat and metaphor.”

“fig (a)” is part play, part medical lecture, part philosophy, and all intriguing. It also has the most original finale that I think I have ever seen.

The printed program for this play is a little difficult to follow, given the frequent difficulty in understanding names spoken from the stage (or the fact that characters apparently have names, but they aren’t ever used except in the program) and the fact there is no “cast of characters” per se, but only a list of performers. Actors play more than one role so, though the many roles are included in individual bios, this review may confuse one actor for another.

The experience begins before the actors take the stage, with pre-show music by Susan Alexjander. “Sequencia” is derived from the vibrational frequencies of molecules found in the chemistry of DNA.

As the action begins on stage, Ruby (UC Davis visiting lecturer, Melanie Julian) has just had a heart transplant. She received the heart of a young man, Luca (Christopher Jee), who died in an auto accident. The one-act play follows Ruby as she adjusts to her new heart, attempts to discover the identity of her donor, and to find her old heart. Julian is such a natural for this sometimes odd role that it would seem it had been written for her.

Jzeela Refah plays the role of Ruby’s doctor, Dr. Al-Qalb. Refah appears to be handling the acting well, but even straining to listen in the small confines of the Mondavi Studio Theatre, most of her lines were inaudible and important pieces of information were missed. She definitely needs to work on projection.

No such projection work is needed for (I think) Sara Zimmerman, who plays a medical lecturer who introduces various medical texts and philosophical readings about the heart, illustrated by clever shadow puppets created by Art Grueneberger and performed by Shayna Carp and Dustin Murray.

In her surgical recovery, Ruby is met by Wepawet (Daniel Reano-Koven), the Egyptian Jackal Guard Dog, who guides her to the Hall of Two Truths, where her heart is to be weighed and judged. But when she explains that the heart in her body is not her heart, she is returned to the present time to begin the search for her own heart.

(The boat in which she is transported is also very clever, with kudos going to Carrie Mullen, the scenic designer. I don’t have a clue as to the name of the masked character or identity of the actor who steered the boat, whose Hannibal Lecter-like breaths were quite effective.)

On her quest to find her old heart and the donor of her new heart, Ruby finds herself in the Egyptian Underworld, in Venice under the guidance of The Venetian (Brittany Barba), and at the Heartbreak Hotel.

She is visited by a number of mythical figures, including an hilarious Cupid (Bradley Castillo) and his Hindu counterpart, Kama (Reano-Koven). And Elvis, of course.

Ruby attempts to relate her experiences to her sister, Maddie (Lauri Smith), who feels she needs some sort of psychotherapy. Enter Dr. Beatrice Bloomset (Claire Blackstock), who explains that the kinds of experiences Ruby is having are not uncommon among transplant patients, and she gives a fascinating explanation of the workings of the heart, which is described as much more than “just a pump,” and is often called a “little brain,” because of its seeming ability to “think” independent of the brain itself.

The play comes to a logical, if unusual, conclusion.

In the end, incorporating all the various information we have received throughout the evening, we are left with questions about what exactly makes us human. It is up to each of us to find the answer to that questions by…following our own heart.

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