THE JUDAS TREE
By MARY FENGAR GAIL
Original Music by ANIKA PARIS
Lyrics by JAMES SCHEVILL
Teatro La Tea, 107 Suffolk St., 2nd Floor, NYC
April 24 through May 11, 2008
Direction and Visual Design by LORCA PERESS
Choreography JENNIFER CHIN
Music Director BRUCE BAUMER
Costume Design PETER JANIS
Lighting Design ALEX MOORE
Production Stage Manager JESSICA V. URTECHO
Press and Publicity SCOTTI RHODES
Arturo Salvia – John Haggerty
Elena Abril Fiero – Roseanne Medina
Lillian Bracken – Lily Mercer
William Thornfield, Earl Lupine – Daniel H. Hicks
Vinnie Pimpinella, Douglas Mulberry, Terrance Collard – José Febus
Rita Catalpa – Colleen Cosgrove
Wendy Yarrow, Doctor Iris Valerian – Tanya Perez
Chorus Corpus Flora
Michael Martin-Badier – Grace Bernicker
Andrea Pizza – Lisa Walker – Patricio Witis
MultiStages’ latest offering is Mary Fengar Gail’s true-crime inspired THE JUDAS TREE. With the production company’s signature "multidisciplinary fusion and multicultural themes" securely in place, this wolf in sheep’s clothing tale of a serial killer in a tight skirt takes on an unlikely, mythic edge to impressive effect.
Based on the crimes of Dorothea Puente, a Sacramento woman who, it was discovered in 1988, had killed her boarders and buried them in her yard, THE JUDAS TREE recounts the trial of Elena Abril Fiero in a Los Angeles suburb around 1958. She is known locally as much for her selfless willingness to help those in need by inviting them to live in her boarding house and take them in as part of her ragtag "family" as she is for her meticulously cultivated garden. When the uncle of a girl last known to reside with Elena engages a detective, Arturo Salvia, to investigate, it is soon apparent that nothing is quite as simple as it seems on the surface.
The character of Elena is complex and rooted in psychology and dueling cultural influences. A childhood of violence is partly responsible for an obsessive, even orgiastic interest to her garden. She has formed a religion around it, and it allows her to justify murder, theft and other crimes. The supporting characters each have their own energy to infuse, and the fine ensemble cast, sometimes in multiple roles, serve the playwright and director well.
Playwright Mary Fengar Gail has loaded her play with winks and nods at the world as Elena sees it. The title, THE JUDAS TREE, is the first tip off, but more obvious is that her characters bear the names of flowers, plants, trees, or other seasonal or horticultural tie-ins. Thornfield is the uncle who initiates the investigation. Bracken will prosecute Elena for her crimes. Lupine, Mulberry and Catalpa live in Elena’s house. Salvia becomes her lover. In the world of Elena Abril Fiero, everything is about the plants and the flowers and the trees. The ultimate touch is the 5-person Chorus Corpus Flora, who dance and sing, elevating the play to someplace beyond drama, yet somewhere other than the comfort and predictability of musical theater.
Director Lorca Peress makes efficient use of what can be a challenging space. At first glance, some of the staging seems awkward, like dinner and other sequences at the far right of the theater. However, it becomes clear that these choices highlight the fractured existence of the central character, Elena. Her garden is always foremost in the audience’s vision, with the site of her trial just beyond. A meal with her borders, is at the corners of the stage, as if to emphasize that the obligatory day-to-day existence of this unlikely murderer is just a means to an end.
THE JUDAS TREE represents a notable addition to MultiStages’ expanding production history. As always, I look forward to the next one.
- Kessa De Santis -