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Theatre in Review: Orange Julius (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

Jess Barbagallo, Stephen Payne. Photo: Sandra Coudert Graham

Julius, an ailing Vietnam vet, may be the title character of Basil Kreimendahl's new play, but I'm betting that the character you'll be talking about as you leave the theatre is Nut; once Julius' daughter and now his son, Nut is played by the trans actor Jess Barbagallo, and few family memoirs have had a comparably charming or insightful narrator. The story Nut has to tell is not an especially happy one, but, clearly, from childhood on, he was the most observant person in the room, and Barbagallo takes each of the script's evocative details and presents them to us like little gifts. A memory of Nut and Julius riding in a car, discussing the dangers of ice skating, ends when Julius, in fatherly fashion, pats Nut on the knee; the child freezes up -- oddly fearful that it is a signal of abuse to come. There is no reason for such a suspicion; it merely illustrates the vast gulf between them. "That was the last time he ever tried to be affectionate at all, and that was fine with me," Nut says, adding, "Maybe if he'd patted me on the back or shook my hand, it wouldn't have felt so...like I was a little girl."

Nut can be wryly amusing about Julius and his annual Veteran's Day ritual, which involved watching, from a very early age, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now. ("He always said Platoon was the most realistic.") Commenting on the time he tore his hand on a fish hook and his father wrapped it in "an oil-soaked car rag," Nut adds, "I thought that was pretty bad-ass." (They never caught anything, by the way; as Julius says, "Fishing isn't about catching something. It's about fishing.") A misguided attempt at digging up snails for dinner results in "chewy little gobs of nothingness." It's in these small, sharply observed passages that Orange Julius casts its spell.

Not that Julius is the only source of eccentricity in Nut's family life: There's Julius' mother, who we never see, but who, Nut says, had "indented nipples, which I found out when I was 14 and visiting with her. I was watching Basic Instinct. I thought I was alone and that she was sleeping in her bedroom. Then suddenly I hear her voice, and she's sitting on the sofa right fucking next to me, saying, 'I wish my nipples looked like that'." I don't know about you, but neither of my grandmothers was capable of making a comment as salty as that.

All of these details and more -- including Nut's hard-won sobriety, his experiments with past-life regression therapy, and his parent's off-and-on marriage, marked by separations -- would make for marvelous reading in, say, a New Yorker Personal History piece. But Orange Julius is supposed to be a play, and what Kreimendahl has supplied is a lengthy narrative occasionally punctuated by little illustrative episodes, none of which build to anything like drama. Between moments of real insight, the script wanders -- badly.

The central event, which the action circles back to repeatedly, is the accidental spraying of Julius' company in Vietnam with Agent Orange, a mishap that will play out, decades later, in his increasingly ravaged, disease-ridden body. (Julius signed on for a brief extra tour of duty, lasting only a few months; but for that, he would be enjoying a healthy middle age.) Kreimendahl doesn't shy away from the ugly details. "My dad's wearing shorts," Nut says. "That's never a pretty sight. Especially not now. All swollen and purple. His legs are splotched with hair." Later, eaten up with cancer, Julius can barely stand because his legs are so filled with fluid. His physical suffering is accompanied by mental decline. Nut and his sister, Crimp, are dismayed to find their father in the backyard, "fishing," -- in reality, sitting, hunched over, holding a reel; the only problem is, he's nowhere near any body of water.

Julius' long, terrible decline, as observed by Nut, is the play's main event, but there is much more; Nut also projects himself into flashbacks focusing on Julius' Vietnam tour of duty; these scenes -- part flashback, part fantasy -- are often awkwardly conceived; in any case, they reveal very little about Julius. There are many graceful transitions: A card game among soldiers suddenly shifts into the same game, played by the family, decades later. A fantasy moment in which Nut dances wildly with Ol' Boy, one of Julius' fellow soldiers, morphs into a scene in a gay bar where Nut and Crimp are watching a drag king perform.

Still, Orange Julius never achieves any momentum, preferring to allow Nut to sort through this scrapbook of memories in leisurely fashion and seemingly in no particular order. The overqualified supporting cast has little to play: Stephen Payne is especially strong at evoking Julius' crippling ailments and mental confusion; if he never really connects with Barbagallo's Nut, I submit it's because the script never gives him the opportunity. Ruy Iskandar is a strong presence as OI' Boy, always ready to engage the enemy with guns and his friends with volleys of profanity; he also executes that drag king bit with considerable style. Irene Sofia Lucio gives Crimp a tough, wisecracking edge, yet she makes the most of a moment when brother and sister, worn down by family worries, impulsively embrace, seemingly holding onto each other for dear life. As France, Julius' wife and Nut and Crimp's mother, Mary Testa more or less invents her character out of thin air; in her most telling moment, fleeing from Julius' cries ("I don't want to die"), she frantically turns away, desperately searching for her keys and fleeing the house in a fury.

Dustin Wills' direction keeps the play moving fluidly through multiple time frames, striking a tone in which love, loss, amusement, and exasperation combine to plausible and sometimes moving effect. Even if Orange Julius never finds its dramatic source, it never feels less than truthful. Kate Noll's garage set is a study in naturalistic detail; anyone who grew up in a small town or suburb will instantly recognize it. Barbara Samuels' lighting mixes understated washes for the family scenes with an extensive array of colors, side looks, and shadows for the wartime sequences; she also uses saturated color and a couple of tacky club units to evoke that gay bar. The unusually complex sound design, by Palmer Hefferan, combines everyday effects, such as car doors and motors, with harrowing wartime explosions and helicopter sounds, plus an enticing playlist of pop tunes that includes "Where Did Our Love Go?," "Duke of Earl," and "Chain of Fools." Montana Levi Blanco's costumes look like real clothes, not a designer's conception, which is always high praise.

There is so much of interest in Orange Julius that one wishes Kreimendahl might revisit it, either in revised dramatic form or, perhaps, in a prose memoir; in the latter format, the author's potent powers of observation might be put to better use. But keep your eye on Barbagallo; everything that happens in Orange Julius is treated by the actor with a wistful acknowledgement of the crossed wires and miscommunications that plague every family. See, he seems to say, how easily things can go wrong in any household -- imperceptibly, yet irrevocably. -- David Barbour

(2 February 2017)

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