Falling in Love with Trust: Swimming While Drowning at ARTSWEST

Poet/playwright Emilio Rodriguez wrote Swimming While Drowning, the play currently onstage at ArtsWest, during the months he volunteered at different shelters and resource centers for LGBTQ youth in Detroit, 2015-16. Doing theatre with the residents, and with later with queer youth in Portland, he was able to collage together the enduring characters of Mila and Angelo, while also “adding a little bit of [himself] to both of them.”

Rodriguez puts his two protagonists Mila (Brodrick Ryans) and Angelo (Gabriel FitzPatrick) into an off-kilter bedroom (scenic design by the always innovative Burton Yuen) where they are stuck together as unlikely roommates. It takes a bit unfolding before Rodriguez lets us know the essentials: Mila and Angelo are young, they are unwanted at “home,” and the shelter is for queer kids. The reveals are artful; the best craft of Rodriguez’s play is in how he allows us to come to know his beautiful characters as they come to know, and eventually trust, each other.

Rodriguez’s craft is also evident in his incorporating his word-work as both poet and playwright. He juxtaposes the poetry Angelo and eventually Mila come to write and perform, with the central action of the play. We shift from the intense realism of their first night as hostile opposites, to pools of light near cafe tables meant to suggest venues where poems might be performed. Both Ryans and FitzPatrick are adept at shifting from their younger selves to the older wiser humans and poets they become. Less adept is director Roy Arauz’s use of the two arenas, and styles, of performance. Arauz and sound designer Sandra Huezo-Menjivar choose to render “realness” in the cafe setting— and the awkward sounds of dishes and silverware clinking in the background take away from the poetics intended to sit in contrast to the dialogue in the shelter. Though Yuen’s imbalanced room gives us a visual metaphor for how unstable these two lives are, I wish that he and Arauz had thought to rake (tilt) the flat level of the beds towards us—the staging in the beds was very awkward and hard to see.

Never fear. Though Arauz did not make always make strong choices about the play’s requirements, or find a dynamic so that the intentionally ambiguous ending of the play found its own theatrical language, the emerging young actors, under his loving direction, carry the day. Each are engaging, utterly original in their stage presence, detailed in their physicality and voice work. They draw us in and let us fall in love with their characters, both of whom are at fragile if not dangerous crossroads in their young lives. Their Latinx and queer identities are revealed in deep complexities and contradictions. Authenticity rings through the room as the playwright, actors, directors and indeed, the whole design team at ArtsWest REPRESENT and CENTRALIZE often marginalized voices in theatre, and of course, in Amerika (sic). The history of their names, gender identities, and their sense of terror and courage in their world are slowly opened.

The two actors have distinctly different styles. FitzPatrick, a graduate of Cornish College of the Arts, is decidedly more external. His Angelo has that, “I-wanna-be-your-friend-tell-me-everything-and-if-you-won’t-I’ll-just-keep-chattering” character keeps him very busy indeed. He tends to act “over” Ryans, and so sometimes over-acts in the process. On the second night, FitzPatrick was working way too hard to play “young” in the naturalistic scenes. It is difficult for FirtzPatrick to access Angelo’s vulnerability given FitzPatrick’s showmanship. Nonetheless, FitzPatrick is unbelievably lovable, engaging, and charming at every moment.  Ryans’s Mila is deeply internalized. Mila is wound tight, and Rynas keep him contained in his tough, ferocious, potentially violent identity. Ryans works very organically to slowly reveal Mila’s tenderness, and terrors. Ryans came up as an actor very differently than FitzPatrick. His apprenticeships/training/employment at places like the Village and the Fifth, have given him practical skills to develop. He is a listening actor, physically powerful and always restrained. His truths are rooted, both for the character and for himself. I enjoyed watching the two actors work together very much. You will too.

And maybe you will learn something about queer teens—how they have to code switch, often escape, find out who they are and whom to trust. In Rodriguez’s poetic and intimately observed world, there is an island of love, safety and discovery. For all of us.

Swimming While Drowning, by Emilio Rodriguez, through October 23 at ArtsWest. The Bridge is open, and its fast to get there, so no excuses. Starring Gabriel FitzPatrick and Brodrick Ryans, directed by Roy Arauz. Lighting by Sam Reid-McKee, Sets by Burton Yuen, Sound by Sandra Huezo-Menjivar, Costumes by Fawn Bartlett and Props by Antonieta Carpio. Ronquesha Ingram is the Stage Manager. Contact ArtsWest.org for info, tickets, discounts, etc.


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