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Review: A flawed but potent ‘Anon(ymous)’ travels to the dark side of America

THEATER REVIEW

In the Fresno State production of Naomi Iizuka’s “Anon(ymous),” the central character journeys through a land that is conspicuously unnamed. But it’s clear where he — and we — are. The pair of stars-and-stripes shorts worn by Anon (played by a diligent Cha Yang) throughout the show is a good hint. The barbed wire, ICE agents and ruthless human smugglers make it even clearer.

Pictured above: The cast of ‘Anon(ymous)’ grapples with the treatment of refugees. Photo: Fresno State

Soon after the play started, a fragment of a lyric from the musical “RENT” floated through my head:

You’re living in America at the end of the millennium.

Iizuka wrote the play in 2006, just a few years past the end of the millennium, and in 2019 we’re a few years more past that mark. But things can feel current in this earnest and impassioned production. With anti-immigrant fervor at full boil, a president scorching Somali refugees at rowdy campaign rallies and a federal government intent on turning the southern border into one big human-rights violation, director Gina Sandi-Diaz puts a present-day spin on the subject matter.

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There is much to admire here: the willingness to tackle potent issues; compelling performances from many of the student actors; and a number of moments of beauty and insight, thanks to Gina Sandi-Diaz’s direction and the work of her designers (both student and faculty). Liz Crifasi swirling lighting design, Regina Harris’ immersive sound design and Elizabeth Payne’s eclectic costumes add to the sense of place.

But the production too often seems didactic and a little awkward, like someone wearing an outfit a couple of sizes too big. The attempt is for magical realism, but the effect achieved rarely has the buoyant quality that can transport an audience out of the realistic world.

Part of this strained, dissonant feel comes from the playwright herself, who turns to the classic story of Homer’s “Odyssey,” the epic poem, and its tale of a wandering hero to frame the story from a refugee’s perspective. Yang’s character is separated as a child from his mother, Nemasani (played by a stirring Teya Juarez), during a storm on their ocean voyage as they flee the country of his birth. Years later, she is laboring in a factory and being sexually harassed by her boss, all the while wondering what became of her son.

What follows are bits and pieces that can be tied to Odysseus’ mythic, 10-year journey home from the Trojan War, but all with a modern flair. An example: After Anon loses contact with his mother, he ends up on a beachfront resort held in luxurious captivity by Calista (Madeline Nelson, nicely played), who plies him with candy bars and wants a kiss. This mirrors the story of the nymph Calypso, who offered Odysseus immortality if he married her. But both men resist, and the journey continues.

Fresno State

Cha Yang, left, and Andrew Trevino in ‘Anon(ymous).’

As an audience member, you don’t need to know the story of Calypso to connect with its modern-day equivalent in the “searching for home” narrative. But some of the later Homeric references are so specific as to be mystifying. Take, for example, Anon’s encounter with the one-eyed Dr. Zyclo (Michael Shane Flores), an allusion to the Cyclops of Greek mythology. He’s portrayed here as a fey, bloodthirsty butcher making vast quantities of human sausage, with his eye in particular on one of Anon’s companions, Pascal (Andrew Trevino, in one of the best performances I’ve seen from him). Just like Odysseus, Anon is trapped in the beast’s lair but escapes by stabbing the beast in the eye, albeit with a woman’s high-heel shoe instead of a wooden stake.

The “Odyssey” concept can be clever in a (slightly pretentious) literary way, and such actors as Rodolfo Robles Cruz (as the sleazy sweatshop boss), Alexis Gonzalez (as an immigrant chef and restaurant owner) and Daniel Serrano (as her blind husband) all offer finely etched performances. But the playwright offers such a superficial retelling of “The Odyssey” and twists the characters so much that the device feels more like a cheap gimmick than inspired homage. Anon, in particular, comes across as a passive observer to most of the obstacles he confronts. I understand positioning a refugee as a kind of mythic hero, but this character doesn’t read like a hero — which makes his quest narrative harder to connect to.


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For those not well versed in Greek mythology, then, the storyline can become a burden. There is one brief, small-print line on the front of the program describing the play’s relationship to the “Odyssey.” Sandi-Diaz, in her director’s note, does not mention it at all. Instead, she emphasizes the contemporary parallels with migrant children separated from their families in detention centers. That focus is certainly relevant, but the “Odyssey” narrative is so specific that it feels like it needs some explanation.

To me, there’s another flaw: With her emphasis on current political events, Sandi-Diaz makes the directorial choice to imbue the production with a more somber, menacing sensibility than I suspect the playwright originally intended. “Anon(ymous)” was developed in 2006 by the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis for its teen audiences. I’m not saying the play was meant as a Saturday morning cartoon swashbuckler, but I do think the script has evidence of lots of whimsy and youthful exuberance, and these qualities are tamped way down in the Fresno State production in terms of the tone and design of the play. (Payne’s costumes probably come closest to acknowledging the play’s creative underpinnings.) Laying the anti-immigration travesties of 2019 over the pro-refugee 2006 views of the playwright is not a perfect fit. The overlap (such as over-the-top sausage enthusiasts, chattering goddesses and jarring images of detention camps) can feel awkward.

Fresno State

Cha Yang in ‘Anon(ymous).’

I have one more concern that is far more pedestrian: The long and complicated scene changes began to wear heavily at the performance I attended. (Mel Johnson is the scenic designer.) Some of the blackouts felt interminable; a couple of the changes were almost as long as the brief scenes that followed.

Still, there are many powerful moments in “Anon(ymous).” I love several of the staging effects (the use of big fabric sheets for waves, the butterflies projected on the floor, the frightening glimpse of bodies in the back of a truck). And I appreciate the easy way the diverse and talented ensemble cast works together.

At the beginning, each member of that cast offers to the audience a glimpse of the home his or her character has left behind:

Where I come from is oxen in rice fields and hills the color of green tea.
Where I come from is jungles filled with jaguars and pythons thick as a grown man’s thigh.
Where I come from is poison frogs the size of a thumbnail and squirrels that can fly from tree to tree.
Where I come from is waterfalls taller than the tallest skyscraper.

That chorus of voices is a reminder of the great gifts that refugees and immigrants bring to this country. Diversity is precious. When you’re living in America, 19 years after the beginning of the new millennium, that’s something we can never forget.


Show info

‘Anon(ymous),’ through Saturday, Oct. 12, Fresno State Dennis & Cheryl Woods Theatre. Tickets are $17, $15 seniors, $10 students.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (1)

  • Jerry Palladino

    I enjoyed the drama, but the scene changes were bothersome. It was a difficult theater drama to get through, but the attempt at reality was stunning.

    reply

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