Although drastically different in scope and context, both Heresy and The Word Progress on My Mother's Lips Doesn't Ring True -- the two plays that Immigrants' Theatre Project is currently presenting in repertory under the umbrella title Heresy/Progress -- ambitiously portray cultures in transition and the injury individuals endure to find acceptance within society's boundaries.
Heresy, by Mexican playwright Sabina Berman, focuses on a Jewish family attempting to live as Christians and the persecution and destruction they suffer during the Inquisition. The play is difficult to follow, partially due to the historical references and the setting, Mexico from 1578 to 1590, a location and time period with which most American audiences are unfamiliar. The production is further hindered by Adam Versenyi's English translation -- some dialogue sounds rigid and unnatural -- but the brunt of the blame for the show's failure can be placed on director Marcy Arlin's staging, which feels amateurish and underrehearsed. For example, in an effort to make the characters more accessible, the ensemble is dressed in street clothes (one actor wears distracting athletic footwear), with props used to add authenticity (a gold cross, floppy hats, masks, etc.). Unfortunately, it comes across as sloppy and inconsistent.
The story of Jews in the New World is ripe for exploration, and the play's central theme of cultural domination -- the family is repressed and practices its religion in secret, but is at the same time cruel and unfair to the indigenous population -- works equally as contemporary social critique. But the sole innovative moment is an arbitrary interlude telling the story of Jesús Baltazár (Andrew Eisenman), a tale of class manipulation, bigotry, and social advancement delivered by actors wearing masks in a stylized pantomime.
While Heresy lacks polish, Progress excels in attention to nuanced detail. Written in French by Romanian playwright Mátei Visniec (and translated into English by Joyce Nettles), Progress is set in the former Yugoslavia after the wars of the 1990s in the Balkans, and the play's main plot centers on two grieving parents (Elizabeth West and James Himelsbach) searching for their son's bones. The complex structure of the play shifts perspective among the son (Daniel Talbott), a ghost who speaks to his parents, and other characters who may be alive or dead. But the spare set -- a stack of tires and a board for a table -- and Ian Morgan's crisp, clean directing choices aid the intricate story. The bone-selling neighbor (Bill Cohen) and a character called Old Mad Woman (Kathryn Kates) are comical and disturbing, but it's the secondary plot, with Jelena Stupljanin as a girl sold into sexual slavery for cartons of cigarettes, that's most poignant. In these scenes, Eisenman's turn as a transvestite hooker is both humorous and chilling as he wheedles and nurtures the girl.
The ways in which the characters thread their homeland's treacherous terrain of power and end up as either the conquered or the conqueror ultimately tie the two plays together, proving that clear victors are very rare indeed.
Presented by Immigrants' Theatre Project & Ian Morgan and Here Center for Contemporary Arts, NYC
at Here Arts Center, 145 Sixth Ave., NYC.
Dec. 7-17. Thu.-Sun., 7 p.m., and Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m., in repertory.
(212) 352-3101 or www.here.org.