By Basil Kreimendahl
Directed by Dustin Wills
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“An Orange Julius. That’s what I want.” – Julius
Basil Kreimendahl’s “Orange Julius” is a memory play. Narrated by Nut (Jess Barbagallo), the play defies space and time to tell the complex story of the narrator’s relationship with their estranged father Julius (Stephen Payne) a Vietnam War Veteran dying from cancer caused by exposure on the battlefield to the herbicide Agent Orange. This relationship transcends the typical exploration into “the children of Vietnam vets and how the war affects the children of those soldiers and their relationship to them” (Basil Kreimendahl in “American Theater”). Because Nut is identified as a transmasculine character, the play further explores “masculinity and this complication of this father/son relationship, and a trans person’s desire to have their father see them as a man and as a son” (Basil Kreimendahl in “American Theater”).
Nut’s memories of life with the family, Julius, mother France (Mary Testa), sister Crimp (Irene Sofia Lucio), and an unnamed offstage brother are vivid with each memory segment acted out on stage. The memories span the years from Nut’s childhood to the present and are shared in episodic rather than chronological order. Additionally, there are fantasy scenes depicting Nut on the battlefield with Julius and Ol’ Boy (Ruy Iskandar) the hyper-masculine figure of Nut’s creation. These scenes dig deeply into Nut’s subconscious as he attempts to sort out who Julius was when he was young and not riddled with cancer and are steeped in rich masculine imagery.
Jess Barbagallo delivers a deeply moving performance as Nut the transmasculine character grappling with issues of acceptance, trust (would Julius kidnap Nut after he splits with France, was Julius touching Nut’s knee while in the car inappropriate touching?), and Nut’s place in the family system. Mr. Barbagallo moves between ages, spaces, and the realms of fantasy with the skills of a shapeshifting doppelgänger. Stephen Payne is equally adept at shifting from the young soldier to the aging and decaying father who has been unable to share his experiences in Vietnam other than watching the iconic movies relevant to the conflict. Mr. Payne’s Julius yearns for the sweetness of an Orange Julius but settles for the bitterness of defeat and alienation.
Mary Testa tackles her role as Nut’s mother and Julius’s wife with extraordinary sensitivity. Not quite sure what to do with Nut and dealing with the downward spiral in her family, Ms. Testa’s France moves across the stage in puzzlement and terror not knowing what to do or what to say to effectively create meaningful change in the family system. Irene Sofia Lucio successfully digs deeply into Crimp’s complex matrix of regret and fury after the character returns home to care for her dying father and finds herself in a maelstrom of sadness and longing. And Nut’s surrogate “father/brother/lover” Ol’ Boy is portrayed with homoerotic machismo and exquisite physical sensitivity by Ruy Iskander.
Kate Noll’s set is remarkable and uses every inch of Rattlestick’s stage area to its advantage. Downstage of the imposing garage door is the main playing area. The massive garage door opens to expose the upstage area where fantasy bleeds into the present and the present explores the regions of the subconscious. A ceiling fan serves both to quietly move the air and represent the loud rotors of a helicopter leaving Vietnam. Barbara Samuels’s lighting is luscious and full of mood changes and subtle shifts in setting. Dustin Wills directs “Orange Julius” with the appropriate attention to the crevices of memory and the jagged corners of war in those banks of remembrance.
The importance of “Orange Julius” transcends the homestead of Julius, France, Crimp and Nut. A psychological, historical, or deconstructionist “reading” of this important and transformative play exposes an underbelly of an America as a transmasculine entity often identified as a “female” but historically struggling hard to flex its alpha muscle and – particularly in the present political climate – identifying more as a “male” in a male environment of power and influence. However, as it stands, “Orange Julius” is a rich cathartic look at the journey of one searching not only for identity, but authentic acceptance and love.