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January 24-30, 2007

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'Ambition Facing West'

Photograph by David Allen
West to east: Dan Hiatt and Julia Brothers play a modern couple living in Japan in 'Ambition Facing West.'

Roots Without Root

TheatreWorks jumps time and space in 'Ambition Facing West'

By Marianne Messina


AMBITION FACING WEST, TheatreWorks' latest play with immigrant themes, had a lot of trouble collecting itself; I wasn't the only person at intermission saying, "Wha ...?"

The story of three generations of travelers starts in Croatia as Father Luka (Dan Hiatt) regales young Stipan (Cole Smith) with tales of wandering heroes like Jason and the Argonauts—who is that girl with the toy boat? In no particular order, bits of generational tales come into the light while other bits freeze in the dark. One minute we see the middle-aged Stipan (Michael Santo), his Italian wife Josephina (Lynne Soffer) and their American daughter, Alma (Anna Bullard), in Wyoming. The next, it's, well, anyone's guess, but if you're really patient and pay attention, it's a middle-aged Alma (Julia Brothers) with her son, Joey or "Smidgen" (Patrick Alparone) in Japan.

Since the same actors play different people in different generations, only a flow chart could know for sure, and only some crisis or tension could make us care. Thankfully, the play rallies in the second act. The most fascinating relationship is the one between Alma ('80s workaholic mom and corporate financial wizard) and her son, Joey, an emerging post-Ritalin adult in search of whatever. Since Mom's work has brought them to Japan, Joey finds Zen Buddhism. Brothers' growly voiced Alma is a joy to watch as the savvy, cynical, modern iteration of her Croatian grandmother Marija (also played by Brothers).

Playwright Anthony Clarvoe's best lines go to mothers: When Alma asks her Zen son what he gets out of sitting on his knees in meditation, he replies, "I get bored, and my knees hurt." "Big change from Catholicism," she quips sarcastically. Alma's cynicism has replaced her Croatian grandmother's desperate ruthlessness, and Alma's rolling stone nonattachment has replaced her grandmother's entrapment. Where Marija was willing to sacrifice her son to keep him with her, Alma is able to make a more selfless choice. Exploring the individual and generational growth process, the play has a lot to say about letting go and letting grow, about the states of emergency and stillness, about going away vs. staying put, doing vs. being.

Yet Alma and Joey's conversation about Eastern/Western approaches to life remains basically a brain game. Instead, the play prioritizes theatrical artifice, the fade-ins and -outs, the parallel scenes, the acting zones on and off a dingy, bare platform. This sparse setting (albeit backed by a cloud-filled lighting screen and many colored skies) allows for the flexibility of time, but it also causes more confusion. Clarvoe's humorously perspicacious lines, mostly parental, are his saving grace. When the Wyoming Alma (1940s) tells her father the sky is bigger than the ocean, her father points out she's never been on the ocean: "Something you fall into and die is bigger than something you just stay and look at," he tells her.

Yet Clarvoe's text largely wastes the talented Bullard, who as young Alma is as engaging and sweetly cute as a stereotype can be. The most convincing foreign national was Soffer's Italian (crippled) Josephina. Before the platform, scenic designer Mikiko Uesugi has given the characters a vast pebble garden to trudge through. A great image of resistance to travel, it was occasionally just plain irritating to watch.

Though this production seems to have more than its share of artsy touches without substance, what did work were its brave moments of silence as Joey practices Zen stillness. In a hush that must have lasted a minute on opening night, the audience acquitted itself well by not rustling, shifting or coughing. Unfortunately, playwright Clarvoe himself didn't do the practice when cobbling together this busy, uncentered story. Back to the drawing board with it.


Ambition Facing West, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday at 7:30pm (no show Feb. 6 and 13), Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and/or 8pm and Sunday at 2 and/or 7pm through Feb. 11 the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $20-$55. (650.903.6000)


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