Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Underground Railway Theater Presents The World Premiere of "Paradise" by Laura Maria Censabella - AN ABSOLUTE MUST SEE!!!

I had trouble sleeping last night - and that was a good thing. I could not stop replaying in my mind scenes from the extraordinary theatrical event I had witnessed last evening at Central Square Theater. With each passing hour, as I tossed and turned and ruminated, I became aware of more and more layers that the playwright and actors had woven into this play. My mental thread count on the fine tapestry that they had fabricated kept mounting. This is one of the finest works of art I have experienced in quite some time. I will not talk much about plot lines, for I hesitate to spoil some unexpected twists and turns, but I will discuss at length many of the themes that are explored and illuminated in this script that shimmers with brilliance.

This production of "Paradise" - A World Premiere - is part of the ongoing visionary collaboration between Underground Railway Theater and MIT known as the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT. Part of the vision of this partnership is to wed science and art, and no script does that job better than the one that Laura Maria Censabella has crafted for "Paradise."

The genius of this play is that every aspect of its creation has been executed at the highest level of professionalism and artistry - the writing, directing, acting, scenic design, costumes, props, lighting, and sound all coalesce together to offer the audience a journey into the interior of two different worlds and two different lives colliding in unanticipated ways.

Yasmeen al-Hamadi (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy) is a Yemeni-American teenage girl, an observant Muslim who dreams of winning a scholarship to Columbia University. Her biology teacher is Dr. Guy Royston (Barlow Adamson), a disgraced former professor at Columbia who was dismissed because he committed an egregious professional indiscretion. They are thrown together in a crumbling classroom in a down-at-the-heels public high school in the Bronx. He does not want to be there, but has no other options. She is trying to earn a 4.0 GPA so she can escape to the Ivy League.  The arcs of their lives have placed them on a collision course, and neither life will be the same after they collide.

Caitlin Nasema Cassidy as Yasmeen
Barlow Adamson as Dr. Royston
"Paradise" by Laura Maria Censabella
Underground Railway Theater
Central Square Theater
Through May 7th
Photo by A.R. Sinclair Photography
No aspect of this play is too small to ignore. The cracks in the wall of the school science laboratory foretell cracks that will appear in the emotional walls that both characters have erected in their lives. The shards of a beaker that is broken between scenes are swept up by Dr. Royston and Yasmeen - a subtle foreshadowing of fragile dreams and relationships that may shatter as the play progresses. Ms. Cassidy and Mr. Adamson are simply brilliant in embodying the contradictions that the playwright has embedded in these these two complex and fascinating characters. I found myself caring deeply about the fate of each one very early in the play. This is a tribute to great writing, great acting, and great directing by Shana Gozansky.

As the play begins, Yasmeen is distraught over a failing grade in her latest test, ruining her dream of a perfect GPA. Dr. Royston is unsympathetic, and she is appalled to learn that he does not even know her name. As the action progresses, he discovers that she is extraordinarily bright and persistent. They collaborate on an elaborate project to study the neurological manifestations of adolescent love. We learn that each character is trying to cope after suffering deep losses within their individual families.

Here are just a few of the savory themes that Ms. Censabella places before the audience:
  • Stereotypes are challenged. Dr. Royston is a brilliant scholar, but speaks with an accent of Poor White Trash. Yasmeen is a proud Yemeni-American, yet her accent screams of the Bronx and the #4 train.
  • Love has many layers and many complications - love for family, mentors, teachers, students, love for learning and for science and for those who collaborate with you in the adventure of learning.
  • The intersection of art and science. This teacher and his student unexpectedly discover that they can quote for one another Milton and Shakespeare. They are so different, yet share the same DNA as Renaissance Man and Woman.
  • Late in the play, teacher and student cooperate in setting up the lab for the day's classes - putting out petri dishes and protective eye wear. What hints lie here? Be careful what you study, for you may be infected by the very thing you seek to examine clinically, dispassionately, and sterilely. Can one study love without being infected by it? In the right incubating conditions, plating a single organism in the right medium can grow into something complex and uncontainable. This is a wondrous and subtle metaphor that the playwright offers
  • What happens when one rejects traditional Bible belt fundamental Christianity and replaces it with a combination of atheism and belief in science as God?
  • How does belief in American individualism live in harmony with a belief in the deep sense of community and tribalism that is part of the Muslim faith and the Yemeni culture?
  • How many subtle remnants of prejudice and Islamophobia persist in someone as educated as Dr. Royston?
  • Another wonderful example of foreshadowing involves a conversation about subatomic particle that are able to influence each other's spin - even when not in the same physical space. Do what extent will Yasmeen and Dr. Royston effect each other's "spin" when they are not together?
  • How many levels of "arranged marriage" are in evidence in this story?
  • How does one make a "Sophie's Choice" - choosing to sacrifice one beloved thing for another?
A memorable and deeply moving scene features Yasmeen singing to Dr. Royston a portion of the Qu'ran that describes paradise. Ms. Cassidy's singing is lyrical, poetic, and . . . .well, heavenly.

Jenna McFarland Lord's set is perfect, as is Lighting by Karen Perlow and Sound by Nathan Leigh. Costumes are by Gail Buckley and the crucial Props are by Lisa Guild.

Do whatever you must do to get to Central Square Theater between now and May 7th. The first thing I did in leaving the theater after seeing "Paradise" was to call a friend of mine who is a Broadway producer. I told him to get to Cambridge to see this play. Save yourself a future trip to New York and see this inventive work of art while it is still in residence in our neighborhood.

Central Square Theater Website



No comments: