Regional Reviews: St. Louis
At their latest production, Hector Levy-Daniel's Bitter Fruit (El Fruto Más Amargo) from 2018, I found myself leaning forward to get a fuller glimpse into the puzzle of a ruthless upper class in Latin America. And here it is, set in a gilt-edged frame at the Marcelle Theatre, as a murder mystery by way of a labor uprising. But it might help first to know the history of Latin America, or at least to have seen Evita or the movies Brazil or Missing, to understand how this play twists and turns in ways we might not be expecting.
Only now in North America do we begin to grasp all the extreme class inequalities of that region, which have led to so much bloodshed over a hundred years. And Bitter Fruit comes north to us as income inequality tilts more and more out of balance in this country, in a show cleverly staged by producer/director Philip Boehm.
Honestly, you can mostly forget about all the region's over-arching political history during this ninety-minute play. But history may be the main substance of the suspense. A weird texture falls on us–like a spider's web–as a strange new housemaid arrives at the home of a wealthy family, sparking the immediate hostility of a strident young woman who runs her family's farm and mill there.
Jennifer Theby-Quinn plays that young woman, Maria, the privileged adult daughter on the estate, and Jane Paradise is the new maid, Luisa. And the strangely captivating Michelle Burdette Elmore is Maria's mother, Teresa. All three actresses work together until every moment on stage wriggles out of the one that came before, like a psychological origami. It's a Spanish telenovela, seemingly reimagined by Alfred Hitchcock.
Louisa, the new maid, quakes obsequiously in the blast wave of each outburst by the señorita. But, mysteriously, Luisa comes up with a totally different colorful story each time she's challenged by the mother or the daughter. And her Latin courtliness, or good manners, or eagerness to embrace her own lowliness, may just be a smart way of deflecting outrage. Still, the show just needs to be about 33 percent longer, to where foreigners would learn more about each type of woman, and what each represents within their culture.
Combatting that sketchiness of character in the script, Ms. Burdette Elmore displays a bombastic matronly air as Teresa, something we normally associate with comedy. It adds a giddy sensibility that evolves into something alarming. This is when her clownishness flowers and decays into something mad, and almost lurid to behold. It's a side of Ms. Burdette Elmore (a regular ensemble member at Stages St. Louis) that we never get to see, otherwise.
Perhaps the only thing really missing here is context for most American audiences, and whatever knowledge we might bring to the play as men or women of the world. The vast majority of us would never think of being killed at work or of not getting paid for months at a time, nor would we think about being found dead in a remote marsh for unionizing.
The only male actor on stage carries most of those fears with him, though. The soulful Isaiah Di Lorenzo is rendered a bit gritty and desperate in this setting, as Pedro, who will come under suspicion as Maria's illicit lover. And their weirdly non-confrontational/confrontational private scenes together begin as happy flashbacks. But the chronology of the flashbacks catches up to the present, and sours, as the power-mad finally devour their own.
The excellent guitar accompaniment before and during the show is provided by Lliam Christy. The next day, after the show, a friend of mine (in a funny mood) tried to sum it all up for me, politically. And he knew he was talking to me as a naive North American. But, with a smile, he described it all as a problem of colonialismo.
Theatre can still speak this language, when it dares.
Bitter Fruit runs through October 29, 2023, at Upstream Theater, Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.upstreamtheater.org.
Assistant Director: Gregory Almanza**
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association
** Denotes Member, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society