(UPDATE – we’ve published another perspective below by Gregory Alonzo on this new work that is getting a lot of buzz!)
By any measure this was another one of those rockin’ cross-country road trips. There is the souped-up muscle car, a hitch-hiking free-spirit, and a soul-searching grad student; and the journey takes our starry-eyed dreamers across small town America including stops in towns in Virginia, Tennessee, Texas. A bottle of tequila in Las Vegas — the epicenter for self-discovery — along with some pirates, clowns and hookers (oh, my!) leads to epiphanies, or maybe, at least, the idea that if we travel south far enough we may survive long enough to understand why we’re chasing ghosts.
But that is the superficial. Lepidopterists take note.
You see, in Trevor Allen’s clever Lolita Roadtrip which enjoyed a huge world premiere this weekend at The Stage, butterflies are not built to last- almost like a theater production: it takes years to bring to the stage, and then is gone in a matter of weeks. I’m not normally one for advice, but if you must understand the reason for live theater, head to The Stage and watch this show closely. In a world of nanosecond pop-culture, aka “the meme generation,” it brings great relief that intelligent, thought-provoking art like this is bursting to life on stage.
Metamorphosis is key to survival — albeit temporarily.
Perhaps this roadtrip, based on Vladimir Nabokov’s 1941 journey from New York to California, might accompany a beautiful symphony, enshrouded in layers of sultry harmonies and mesmerizing rhythms. It is a thinking person’s journey.
No question: Allen has a gift.
You get the sense after witnessing opening night that this is the tip of the iceberg in this talented playwright’s arsenal. I’m guessing that each and every person that left the theater in San Jose on this Saturday evening walked away with a different message, a different reaction. It’s a personal experience. Billed as “darkly comedic,” I got more of the dark than the laughs, although there were several of the latter.
The story concerns analytical Stanford grad Julia (Chloe Bronzan) who succumbs to the charms of Danny (Paltrick Alparone), a free spirit she runs into at a local NY Public Library. Then they retrace the steps of Nabokov’s actual 1941 roadtrip, from New York to Stanford in Palo Alto. His 1955 novel “Lolita” itself becomes a key character. A professor (Julian López-Morillas) tells us one version of the story, urging us to consider its implications. Meanwhile his wife (Stacy Ross) fights cancer.
To recap: a Russian novelists’ real-life roadtrip is interweaved with his allegedly fictional novel “Lolita” which in turn is given a contemporary cross-country re-imaging (with messy spare ribs to boot!), along with the Cyliópsis Pertepída Dorothéa. That this material can be so well-crafted, so beautifully layered is in itself impressive.
Unfortunately, the acting on this evening was not quite up to task. Those botched lines can be contagious, but no matter, this is a talented lot, all four actors are equity, and I expect the opening night hiccups to absolve themselves rapidly. I hope, too, that the chemistry between Bronzan and Alparone, the two leads, gels just a bit more… I think smoldering at times is in order.
The set (Giulio Cesare Perrone) is yet another feat. How does Randall King and co. do it? Again and again, this is the theater that simply amazes. A large rotating platform gives us several perspectives, rotating dramatically. One moment it’s a bedroom bathed in a dramatic spot and gorgeous lighting (Maurice Vercoutere), the next stomping grounds for a UFO convention in Lubbock.
And that sound design (Cliff Caruthers)? It’s modern, melancholic tone sits just right with this viewer.
Like any road trip worth its flat tire, there is at least one gun, and one twist. It’s the journey that matters, however, not the destination. How you react to it I cannot say. Gold liquid? Mind-bending narrative? Eternal beauty?
By Trevor Allen
The Stage, San Jose
3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Lee Sankowich
Starring Chloe Bronzan, Patrick Alparone, Julian Lopez-Morillas, Stacy Ross
Photos by Dave Lepori.
Counter-point: ‘Lolita Roadtrip’
by Gregory M. Alonzo
It’s by design that Vladimir Nabokov casts a giant shadow over Lolita Roadtrip. But instead of paying simple homage, playwright Trevor Allen has the audacity to step out from under it and unveil an astonishing and complex masterpiece all his own. It’s not only a contemplation of the darker side of human nature and the inevitable challenges of the human condition, but an exaltation of the human spirit’s capacity to endure unspeakable adversity.
The Russian-American author and lepidopterist was infatuated with all things pubescent, whether it’s the nymph stage of the common butterfly, or the twelve year old “nymphet” depicted in his classic tale. Allen’s ambitious narrative weaves the lives of two couples whose stories parallel Nabokov’s life and twin obsessions. The metaphor that binds them is disguised as a segmented series of short lectures on the life cycle of the monarch butterfly delivered by the novelist himself.
We’re introduced to Paul Drake (Julian Lopez-Morillas), a plainspoken university professor, addressing a class of undergraduates attending his course on Nabokov’s “Lolita”. His scenes are intercut with those of Julia Martin (Chloe Bronzan), a doctoral student whom we meet doing research at the New York Public Library in preparation for a cross-country migration to California. Her trek will trace the path taken sixty years earlier by Nabokov, the subject of her dissertation.
Julia has a chance encounter with a young man after dropping an arm load of books. Danny (Patrick Alparone) is also on his way to The Golden State for a reality show audition and needs a ride. Despite her better judgment, she agrees to take him along for the drive west.
Although he appears harmless enough, she soon learns that the flirtatious teenager has had to resort to male hustling to survive. Despite this troubling disclosure, they continue on together and one begins to suspect Julia’s growing fond of his boyish charm.
Alparone is pitch-perfect as the charismatic adolescent whose childhood was fraught with an inordinate amount of hardship and pain. He shares all of his scenes with Ms. Bronzan and the chemistry between them is a delight to behold. His ability to imbue a streetwise cynicism with a childlike innocence is quite impressive. And his innate vitality, intelligence, and physical stature, all serve Danny well.
Lopez-Morillas alternates between Nabokov and Drake with amazing dexterity; each very different in personality except for a conspicuous passion and erudition-traits the actor has in abundance. The latter role requires that he evince a range of difficult emotions, many of which are quite distasteful. Moreover, the former’s “metamorphosis” talks require that he credibly recite arcane jargon as if it’s poetry. Throw in a few extra minor roles, and what one has is a wizard at the height of his powers!
Paul is married to Mary (Stacy Ross), who’s terminally ill. She obviously loves her husband, but his inattentiveness distresses her and it’s clear that it’s not something new. Her role is the least developed, but Ms. Ross successfully captures the pain of a wife that’s had a history of facing malignancies that go far beyond her disease. And she’s given an opportunity to showcase her impressive versatility by assuming a variety of smaller characterizations that are broadly played for the desired comic effect.
As Julia’s personal odyssey progresses, each of the characters bear witness to their own lives in an intricately staged, crisscrossing succession of expository monologues that inevitably converge to reveal a set of startling revelations. It’s a complex and exemplary piece of stagecraft, creating an illusion whereby the actors occupy the same revolving stage, but their characters exist in a separate dimension of time and place that allow only for the faintest recognition of the other’s presence. Kudos must go to the ingenious staging and direction of Lee Sankowich, the hypnotic lighting ( Maurice Vercoutere) and sound design (Cliff Caruthers), and the dreamlike set design (Giulio Cesare Perrone).
Bronzan has a majestic inscrutability that’s fascinating to watch. The emotional journey that she is required to undergo, from the frightened, guarded fragility that’s readily apparent when we first meet her, to the brave, spirited woman that emerges before our eyes, is nothing less than phenomenal. Everything one has to know about Julia is evident from her fearless expression of strength and vulnerability as she stands alone in the final scene. Bravo!
Trevor Allen, Playground and the San Jose Stage Company have produced a challenging, provocative play that explores some important themes with a rare courage and unflinching honesty that resonates long after one leaves the theatre. It’s bound to spark controversy in much the same way “Lolita” did over a half century ago. Isn’t that the goal of any work of art?