Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Anon(ymous) takes the premise of the hero Odysseus's journey back to Greece after securing victory in the Trojan War and changes its setting to the United States. A boy, Anon, in flight from an unnamed third world nation, becomes separated from his mother during a storm at sea, is washed ashore, and makes his way across time and the American landscape in search of home. He doesn't necessarily believe he will make it back to the homeland from which he and his mother fled, but he knows that he will feel the sense of being home when he gets there.
When asked his name, Anon says that he is Nobody; if pressed, he comes up with a different name each time. As Odysseus was protected by Athena, Anon is aided by a god, in his case a super-chill god named Naja. Like Odysseus, Anon encounters a host of dangerous people and situations along the way, many of which mimic episodes and characters from The Odyssey. Among playwright Iizuka's most vivid creations are a maniacal one-eyed butcher who uses wine and cheese to subdue his victims, akin to the Cyclops, and Gabrielle, a seductress who, as Calypso did with Odysseus, uses her charms to keep Anon from pursuing his mission. Anon also meets people who help him, including Pascal, who for a while becomes Anon's travelling companion, and a blind café proprietor, his wife, and their daughter.
In scenes that alternate with Anon's journey, his mother Nemasani is working in a factory with other immigrant women, bent over sewing machines. The factory manager is obsessed with her and asks her to marry him every day. She puts him off, saying she cannot marry until she completes the shroud she is sewing for her son, who she is certain has died at sea. Because he finds her name too difficult to pronounce, he calls her Penny–another nod to "The Odyssey," in which Ulysses' wife, named Penelope, waits for his return in Greece and stalls the suitors, aggressively pursuing her hand by working on a shroud for her lost, and presumed dead, husband.
Most of the cast members play multiple roles, including as part of a chorus of refugees who create a context for Anon's journey, citing how things were "where I come from," the traditions they had to abandon, the dangers they faced in leaving, and the harrowing response to their arrival as strangers in a new land. Here the story parts from "The Odyssey," for where Odysseus was a singular heroic figure, Anon's plight and Nemasani's heartache are shown to be just two such stories among multitudes.
Anon(ymous) was commissioned in Minnesota by Children's Theatre Company where it premiered in 2007 following workshops at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and the Public Theater in New York. The play, aimed at an older youth audience than the majority of Children's Theatre Company's work, was a timely response to the need for thousands of youth and young adults in Twin Cities schools whose families fled from Laos, Somalia, Myanmar, El Salvador, Liberia, Iraq, and other cauldrons of chaos around the world, to see people like themselves depicted in stories, as well as to help youth fortunate enough to have not had these experiences as part of the recent history of their families develop empathy for their newly arriving neighbors and classmates. Since its premiere, Anon(ymous) has had near four hundred productions, most of those at high schools and colleges around the nation. That said, adults can also be well served by the play and its message, especially in a moment of backlash against refugees and asylum seekers striving for a safe haven and fresh start in life.
Stephanie Lein Walseth, one of Full Circle Theatre Company's co-artistic directors, deftly directs this production, balancing engrossing storytelling with the delivery of important themes. She has worked with lighting designer Tom Mays and sound designer Quinci Bachman to create frequent sequences that evoke the terror of living in a war zone. Fight director Annie Enneking and assistant fight director Mason Tyer make strong contributions, including a tense duel with foreboding curved bolos. Mina Kinukawa (whose elegant work seems to be everywhere this season) has designed a simple but effective set with bolts of cloth that can evoke a churning sea or torrent of wind, a raised platform to distinguish locations, and a large, mobile box that can become the top of a freight train car, a tunnel for escaping from, a dumpster for hiding among the rats, and other settings. Abby Vaughan's costumes bring yet another stroke of wit to the production.
Dominique Jones warms our heart as Anon. Anon has the most time center-stage, and Jones conveys the indefatigable hope and grit of our young hero while also displaying the lithe agility a person in his circumstances needs to escape close calls. Charla Marie Bailey wins us over as Nemasani, grieving for her son while maintaining the wits needed to put off her unwelcome suitor. As the god Naja, Ninchai Nok-Chiclana has a lightness that sometimes feels at odds with the difficulties Anon faces, but her good cheer and constant grace do serve to bolster Anon when his spirits flag. Also, they may offer assurance to the audience that there is hope for a happy outcome–perhaps a good move for the youthful audiences that first saw Anon(ymous).
Strong impressions are also made by Gabrielle Jones as the Calypso-like Calista, James L. Almen as the blind café keeper Ali, Yuri Mackus as Nemasani's lecherous supervisor, Edwin Strout as the monstrous one-eyed butcher Zyclo, Christopher Collier as Pascal, and Wini Froelich, both as the well-intended but clueless wife of a senator and as Zyclo's exotic and conspiratorial pet bird.
I stress again that Anon(ymous) is a play for all ages, adults included, though young children may be frightened by scenes that simulate the explosive lights and sounds of war. Full Circle, with a mission to tell stories of those on the edges of society, has wisely recognized the urgency of bringing Anon and Nemasani's story to the forefront at this time. The production has been mounted with great care to honor its heroes and foster empathy for their plight. With an abundance of quality theatre on our local stages, this one is worth making time for.
Anon(ymous), a Full Circle Theater production, runs through November 19, 2023, at playing at Park Square Theatre, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please visit www.fullcircletheatermn.org.
Playwright: Naomi Iizuka, based on Homer's The Odyssey; Director: Stephanie Lein Walseth; Assistant Director: Siddeeqah Shabazz; Dramaturg: Alex Church; Set Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Abby Vaughan; Lighting Design: Tom Mays; Sound Design: Quinci Bachman; Properties Design: Asa Benjamin; Choreographer: Karla Nweje; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Assistant Fight Director and Intimacy Directory: Mason Tyer; Technical Director: Erin Gustafson; Production Manager: Mike Smith; Stage Manager: Amanda Oporta; Assistant Stage Manager: Katie (KJ) Johns; Producer: Rick Shiomi.
Cast: Nina Aguilera (Nasreen, Belen, Sewing Lady), James L. Almen (Ali, Ignacio, chorus), Charla Marie Bailey (Nemasani), Christopher Collier (Pascal, chorus), Wini Froelich (Helen Louis, Zyclo's Bird, nice American mother, chorus), Dominique Jones (Anon), Gabrielle Jones (Calista, sewing lady, nice American daughter, chorus), Ninchai Nok-Chiclana (Naja), Jasmine Porter (Ritu, Serza, sewing lady, chorus), Matthew Saxe (Mr. Yuri Mackus, Strygal, chorus), Edwin Strout (Senator Louis, Mr. Zyclo, nice American father, chorus).