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Theatre in Review: Sagittarius Ponderosa (NAATCO/3LD Art & Technology Center)

Glenn Kubota, Virginia Wing, Mia Katigbak, Bex Kwan. Photo: William P. Steele

MJ Kaufman's new play has all the hallmarks of a standard-issue family play, but is inflected with a number of original touches that make it easy to take. This is the old one about the directionless young person who moves back home in a family crisis. Making it more interesting: The family is Asian and fairly traditional, and the young person is Archer, née Angie. It begins with the family seated around the Thanksgiving table. Among other things, Bob, the father, is happy to be alive -- a state that, as we learn, is hardly assured in his case. And Grandma announces that she is thrilled Angie is going to be married.

But Angie/Archer isn't. As Kaufman depicts it, the family maintains a delicate balance. Archer, a graphic designer with no particular life of his own, has returned to Central Oregon to tend to his seriously ailing father. Mom and Pops still use the name Angie, although they are blind if they don't know the score. In any case, nobody has informed Grandma that her granddaughter is now a man; she keeps hope alive by trying to feed Archer cups of tea infused with love charms. Archer, no fool, sees what is going on, and switches the cups, unwittingly propelling Grandma into a romance with the man next door, Mr. Peterson, with whom she shares a subscription to the New York Times. Even here, Grandma has a plan; Mr. Peterson has a son who works in construction; sight unseen, she is convinced the young man is husband material.

Not all that much happens: In scene after elliptical scene, Bob's health worsens, Mom frets, Grandma and Mr. Peterson get to know each other as much as their mutual deafness allows, and Archer falls into a fling with Owen, a grad student in forestry who is conducting a study of some nearby Ponderosa pine trees. They meet nightly for sex in the woods, risking hypothermia for a little pleasure and forgetting. In laying out this situation, Kaufman provides a number of amusing or touching moments. Bob takes an extra name -- Jason -- in the magical belief that it will shore up his health. Owen, Archer notes, "is such a best-friend-in-second-grade name." "My family just gets smaller," sighs Grandma, by way of explaining her desire to marry off Archer. The director, Ken Rus Schmoll, handles this delicate material with the sensitivity it requires.

But if the prevailing mood of melancholy, occasionally interspersed with laughter, is well-established, the action rarely rises to the level of drama. Time passes, events unfold, but there is a striking absence of conflict that makes Sagittarius Ponderosa ultimately more pleasant than gripping. This is especially true of a finale that leaps ahead a year, presenting a new status quo without really explaining how the characters got there. There are other stylistic oddities, as well; it's never really clear why Mr. Peterson is a puppet, manipulated by Glenn Kubota, who also plays Bob.

Still, in a play in which the unspoken is of particular importance, the entire cast does well, starting with Bex Kwan as Archer, whose often curt delivery might seem monotonous but for the actor's ability to suggest a world of feelings hidden under the words. Mia Katigbak, always a pleasure to have around, is fine as one of those women who reacts to a crisis by being busy. Kubota is immensely likable as Bob, especially when in search of the junk food that his doctor has forbidden. Virginia Wing is winsome as Grandma, but she can also lash out with surprising anger, venting her hatred for a hearing aid that leaves her with a constant buzzing in her ears. As Owen, Daniel K. Isaac has a laconic charm that makes you want to see him and Archer get together.

In Kimie Nishikawa's set design, the audience is placed on two sides of a long playing area that is broken up into Grandma's apartment, the family living room, Bob and Mom's bedroom, and the Ponderosa pine, represented as a kind of papier-mâché construction. It's an ingenious layout, aided by the graceful transitions managed by Oliver Wason's lighting. Brynn Almli's costumes take note of the way different generations dress. Miles Polaski provides both pleasantly sad incidental music and such effects as a knock on the door and a couple of television broadcasts. Thomas Kavanagh's projections feature snow falling on the theatre's walls. The puppet is artfully designed by Tom Lee.

Sagittarius Ponderosa isn't a major work -- it's arguably not even a successful one -- but it's an effective calling card for a playwright from whom we should be hearing again. Cheers to NAATCO for delivering such a sensitive production. -- David Barbour

(3 November 2016)

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