Review: ‘Mariposa & the Saint’ by Arcturus Theater Company

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The very transportable set for this touring production consists of a small enclosure of flimsy, fragile fabric cubes painted to look like stone blocks but really as insubstantial as little laundry hampers. They take on obdurate solidity, though, as Julia Steele Allen begins her formidable performance inside them of a woman in solitary confinement.

Julia Steele Allen in Mariposa & The Saint. Photo by Noelle Ghoussaini.
Julia Steele Allen in ‘Mariposa & The Saint.’ Photo by Noelle Ghoussaini.

The prisoner’s name is Sara Fonseca, called Mariposa on account of her butterfly tattoo, a 33-year-old mother of two whom she has not seen in 12 years. Hers has been an unimaginably protracted confinement. As Allen tells her story—mostly in Mariposa’s own words, written in letters to Allen over the course of three years—we are confronted with a fact about our country that has to rank among its all-time greatest shames: Though the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture considers solitary confinement cruel and inhuman punishment if it goes on longer than 15 days, right now in this land of the free more than 80,000 people are in SHU (Security Housing Unit, aka “the hole”), and many of them, like Mariposa, have been there for years.

For 23 out of every 24 hours they are absolutely isolated, yet no judge sentenced them to serve even a minute of their prison time in solitary. There was no due process. There is now no right of appeal. They are there merely at the whim of wardens, who in the United States prison industrial complex wield a power to play state’s sadist that the Constitution ostensibly prohibits.

The theater project began when Allen met Mariposa while volunteering with a group advocating for women prisoners in California. Their relationship is as much a part of the play as is  Mariposa’s ordeal (some of which is excruciating to hear, as when she tells of being repeatedly raped at age seven by her mother’s johns). At one point Mariposa says, “You are my soul. You are my best me.” And the bond of care and solidarity between them becomes our tether to Mariposa’s plight too. At another point the audience joins Allen in reading a poem that she wrote for and to Mariposa:

If only I could see you now
I would tell you
You have a place
It is with me

Allen’s performance was riveting. More than playing a character, she seemed to be channeling emotions and experience from within  Mariposa’s world. And it  became evident in a post-show discussion that she has been conscientious in keeping the coauthored work—credited equally to Sara Fonseca and herself—a real collaboration. This being the last performance of a year-long tour, Allen said she now will go back to visit Mariposa and consult her about what becomes of the project next.

Mariposa & the Saint was presented one night only by Arcturus Theater Company, whose artistic mission is to “prompt discussion on topics that do not come up naturally in everyday conversation,” in partnership with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Noelle Ghossaini  directed, Michi Osato was stage manager and assistant director, and Javier Gaston-Greenberg performed in a nonspeaking role as a masked corrections officer (“C.O.”).

Mariposa & the Saint is wake-up theater, indict-the-conscience theater, and incite-to-action theater. It’s exactly the kind of theater the world needs more of.

Running Time: About 50 minutes, with no intermission.

Mariposa & the Saint presented by Arcturus Theater Company was performed on June 24, 2015, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church – 1313 New York Ave NW, in Washington, DC.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.