Review: At Hartford Stage, a vortex named Nilaja Sun

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HARTFORD, Conn. — A force of nature has settled in at Hartford Stage, where it remains through Sunday. It's not just the hurricane bearing down on New York City in Nilaja Sun's "Pike St." It is, in fact, Sun herself, an actress of extraordinary gifts who holds the stage in a blazing 80-minute exercise in acting virtuosity.

Sun wrote "Pike St." as a commission for Epic Theatre Ensemble in New York which gave the play its world premiere in November 2015 at Abrone Arts Center. Sun has been performing it in a variety of cities here and abroad, along with her preceding award-winning signature piece "No Child," drawn from her experiences as an arts educator in New York City schools.

The multi-character "Pike St." is set chiefly in the fifth floor Lower East Side walk-up apartment belonging to Evelyn, a woman of Puerto Rican descent who shares the apartment in which she was born with her brain-damaged teenage daughter, Candi, and her womanizing father, Papi, who, when he is not "flirting with anything having a vagina," Evelyn says, or getting it on with his current squeeze, Migdala, makes bootleg rum and plays the numbers at a neighborhood bodega run by a Muslim named Mohammed.

Evelyn has quit her job as a conductor in the New York subway system to take care of Candi full time. She is taking an online course that is training her to become an energy healer, like her deceased mother, Dona Lola. "We need to make money somehow," she tells Papi, reflecting her practical side, "and energy healing is very popular nowadays." She has a firm belief in the power of energy to heal, to overcome the disruptions that mar the physical and especially emotional environment. She is fueled by her commitment to make a better, safer, connected life for her daughter; bad energy out, good energy in. "Doctors say she'll be like this the rest of her life," Evelyn says at one point. "But, I say she will be in Congress one day. Representative Candace Lola Vega from New York's District Twelve at your service ... "

On the day in which "Pike St.'s" action unfolds, Evelyn will need all the positive energy and mental resources she can summon as she decides to weather the oncoming hurricane at home with Candi rather than move to a nearby shelter. At the same time, Evelyn is eagerly anticipating the return this day of her brother, Manny, who is coming home after just over a year of combat in Afghanistan.

Manny is not without his own issues. Honored with a Silver Medal, Manny is haunted by his war experiences. His PTSD very nearly gets the better of him when, as a favor, he is asked to do his father's business with Mohammed.

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"Pike St." is a carefully structured piece that begins slowly; quietly. As the audience enters the theater, Sun is sitting on a chair, center stage, her eyes closed; feet flat on the floor; a palm resting on each thigh. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, her calm, still body begins to curl within itself; arms, hands rising up the neck, gnarled, twisted, bent. Her right leg draws against her left, the foot bending out at the ankle. Her head, face turns upward, mouth opening as if gasping for air, yearning to say something, issue some sound. Then, at once, Sun bounds out of the chair, morphing into an elderly energy healer, possessed by Dona Lola, who leads the audience in a ceremony of clapping three times and taking a deep breath in, then out; a ritual that will return at certain points in the evening; perhaps never more meaningfully than at the end.

"Pike St." is about hope; about survival; about determination and compassion; about the things that bind us together even while they are trying to keep us apart. Sun performs "Pike St." solo although she writes in her production notes in the script that "Pike St." can be performed "with one actor or as many as 10."

Unlike any number of solo theater pieces, "Pike St." is neither a monologue nor a series of monologues. "Pike St." is a full-out play with characters who interact with each other over the course of one fateful day. Think of someone getting up at a gathering to read a play and taking all the parts. Sun's remarkable performance, under Ron Russell's direction, is something like watching multiple personalities on steroids. This shape-shifting artist turns on a dime among her characters. Her movement is rhythmic, crisp. She creates three-dimensional objects — grocery bags, cups of coffee, drinking glasses filled with rum, cigarettes, a gas generator — that, in fact, aren't there in any conventional sense. Sun's astonishing vocal range and textures, her and facility with accents, are authentic and resonant.

There is not enough space in this portrait gallery for nuance, for depth; for the dynamics of the relationships among the members of this family or between various family and those with whom they associate. "Pike St." is perhaps longer and deeper in virtuosity than it is on nuance.

At the same time, you can't help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, the lens through which we are experiencing "Pike St.'s" dizzying, frequently overwhelming, rush is Candi herself, who can neither speak nor eat nor breathe on her own. But, Evelyn says, "she feels the feelings of others and it swallows her." Candi is a steady, constant presence; strong, resilient, a fixed point in a turning world. "She came out of the womb strong," Evelyn says. "Strong arms. Strong legs. Strong body."

It is no mere artistic whim that "Pike St." not only begins with Candi, it ends with her.


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