“I see America as an epic poem… volumes long.”
With this singular line, Michael McKeever, the playwright of American Rhapsody opens and summarizes the entirety of the play. In Zoetic Stages current world premiere production, directed by Stuart Meltzer, America is observed through the lens of one family spanning 63 years. This family is a representation of the country as a whole as you go from decade to decade, historical event after historical event…
In other words, it is a story of epic proportions. The task of touching on so many things can be daunting to most artists and yet McKeever tackles it head on. With Meltzer at the wheel the play is given a poetic life that compliments the epic poem it is so modeled after, taking us on an ambitious journey.
From the first moment the characters enter the space, the nature of this world is something that exists both in and out of time. The characters enter with a soundscape that lets the audience know they are out of time, each one moving about the temple-like set in a controlled and almost floating pace, ritualistic in a way, followed by that first line from Franky Cabot (Alex Weisman) who sets the tone and proceeds to guide us through this American journey.
In a play like this the ensemble plays a vital role, each actor, aside from Weisman, taking on multiple characters while all being grounded in the role connected directly to the Cabot family. As Franky starts us off in 1969 and guides us through event after event in his own life, the audience is also given a glimpse into those around him. From his sister Jenny, (Lindsey Corey) then jumping back to his grandfather Papa Frank (Stephen Trovillion) – the breaking of the fourth wall existing as a device throughout from almost every member of this family and those in proximity.
All of these things make for a kind of story that asks you to lean in, that demands a closer look. It’s a lot to ask of those sitting in the theater because it is a play that tackles a larger-than-life subject which is America. Whether it does it successfully or not isn’t the point, because what should be more than commended, is that it asks how the world changes you, and why it changes you.
Zoetic Stage – American Rhapsody 1 (Pictured – Aloysius Gigl, Alex Weisman, Lela Elam. Photo – Justin Namon.)
The ensemble works through this question like a well-oiled machine, moving through time and character with ease for the most part. Weisman acts as loose narrator, attempting to finish this “epic poem” of his while giving us humor, truth, and a sense of connection to the Cabot family.
Corey, a New World School of the Arts alum, as Jenny Cabot grabs you with a charming portrayal from the first scene as she sits with the family watching the moon landing in childhood all the way through to having a child of her own. The authentic life she pours into the role only helps to heighten the language and those around her.
Trovillion jumps effortlessly between Papa Frank, with his comforting and wise narration, and Terrance Ray in all his charismatic stuck up attitude.
Stephanie Vazquez(Maddie Cabot-Bernal), another New World alum, having most recently worked with Zoetic on Gringolandia, makes her comeback as the daughter of Jenny and Albert Bernal(Carlos Alayeto), adding a delightful and necessary youthful presence.
While the dialogue seemed to purposefully jump between conversation and exposition there was one particular actor that gave it the most powerful and grounded life with each scene and monologue. Aloysius Gigl(Big Frank/Justin/John Nissan) delivers a monologue that might be the strongest part of the whole play in its vulnerable authenticity. While the play drives through historical moments of the United States, it makes a stop in the 80s during the AIDS epidemic and it is here where McKeever creates a window into the experience of a gay man with a monologue from Gigl that sticks with you long after it is finished.
Alayeto and Lela Elam (Nat Morris) act as the outsiders that give the audience an insight into the family from a different perspective.
The play wouldn’t be the monumental story it is without a monumental set and scenic designer Robert F. Wolin creates just that. Instead of a standard living room setting, Wolin opts for something more grand, ancient and marble in appearance, a temple with two large wing-like pieces acting like projection scenes for the transitions through time and space. Meltzer uses not only music that propels us into each decade but video footage as well – while the transitional device feels too quick at times it still effectively provides a world beyond the lack of traditional period representation with cumbersome set pieces.
Zoetic Stage – American Rhapsody 2 (Pictured – Lindsey Corey, Aloysius Gigl, Alex Weisman, Laura Turnbull. Photo – Justin Namon.)