BO-NITA- FROM THE PAGE TO THE REP STAGE AND BACK AGAIN

Seattle-based writer Elizabeth Heffron knows how to wield a metaphor. In the Seattle Rep’s premiere of her fluid and largely comic text about the exploits of Bo-Nita, her thirteen year old heroine, Heffron weaves a string of them into a story the way (if you will), a great cowgirl wraps her galloping pony around the obstacles of a race course.  Bo-Nita’s mom has a way of bringing home a lot of the wrong men, and on this particular day, as Bo-Nita waits on the curb outside her school, the young teenager tells us about the day one of those men came back and created a whole heap of trouble. Chaos ensues, and we find out the horrors and hilarities in the way Bo-Nita and her Mom get themselves in and out of the circumstances of their fragile lives. Just check out the brilliant illustration being used to advertise the play (Graphic Designer Howard McWilliam) and you’ll get a sense of the crazy characters that inhabit the St. Louis in which Bo-Nita is trying to grow up. So far so good.  Add to that premise the singular actress Hannah Mootz, who fearlessly tackles the demands of,  “a play for one actor” (as writer/performer Charlayne Woodard has re-named the often predictable “one man (sic) show”).  Mootz delivers multiple voices/dialects (stellar work by the ever-reliable and omnipresent coach Judith Shahn), subtle physicalities, and electric pacing that delivers the beat Heffron says she seeks. Mootz dives into the gender and cultural make-up of her characters with technique and discipline. When Bo-Nita (and Mootz) must portray the obese Cajun ex-step dad who “poked” her (phew, those words went by fast, I think Bo-Nita was raped, and more than once) AND who has had a heart attack AND whose teeth have been knocked out by Bo-Nita herself, AND who has just come back from the dead to find himself dressed in fishnets and little else…well, let’s just say  Ms. Mootz can do just about anything. Brava.  Given all that, the reader must think I have seen a great piece of theatre.

Sadly, that is not the case.  For there are flaws at the very centrality of the production, which feeds an audience’s easy surface laughter, but fails to reach down and access the deepest ironies and profoundly, the damages done to the most resilient young gal to hit the stage since Paula Vogel’s L’il Bit got out from underneath her uncle’s abuse in How I Learned to Drive.  Bo-Nita will survive, but in the whirlwind of Paul Budraitis’s aggressive and exacting direction I could never come to know her,  much less  understand how she could shrug off multiple rapes with just a few rapid fire words and another of her mother’s impossible schemes. The opening night audience gasped when Bo-Nita revealed the burns on her arm (whether caused by her mother or yet another horrible boyfriend of Mom’s was not clear). It was as though the visible wound was the only one we, or this production, had time for. The wound we could see, the one on the surface, the kind that went by fast. Further, the production’s overtly naturalistic soundscape of door slams, traffic, birds and the like, was jarringly ill-matched with a surrealistic lighting design of saturated color and abrupt rhythm.  Budraitis needed to bring Sound Designer Matt Starritt and Lighting Designer Robert J. Aguilar together in a unified vision, one that did not tear our focus away from Bo-Nita, and just let her tell her story.  Set Designer Jennifer Zeyl put us squarely in front of a run-down public school, with dingy, patchy walls, a lonely stoop, and a strangely anachronistic, shiny-new picnic table. Yet Budraitis didn’t seem to want Bo-Nita to be there, using little else besides the table in his static staging, despite the wide street curb,  an inviting bicycle rack and a doorway, perhaps the strongest metaphor we could keep our eyes on. 
    We should read the gifted Ms. Heffron’s work on the page, where the beat she has crafted can find its own tempo. I bet it’d be the best short story I’ve read since the latest works of Alice Munro, and after all, she just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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