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“Cherry Smoke” @ Urban Stages

While Rocky is ducking punches (and singing about them) uptown in the Winter Garden Theatre, the Working Theater has their own down on his luck boxer waiting in the wings. Cherry Smoke, now playing at Urban Stages, follows Fish (Vayu O’Donnell), a young man with a self-destructive streak as unyielding as his blows.

He shares the stage with his girlfriend Cherry (Molly Carden), a runaway who hasn’t been in school in years; his younger brother Duffy (Patrick Carroll); and Duffy’s tomboyish-yet-maternal wife Bug (Julie Jesneck). As the plays goes through its assortment of flashbacks, present-day scenes, and direct address monologues, we learn about Fish’s troubled past and his attempts to change once Cherry gets pregnant with his child. As indicated in the play’s awkward prologue, where all four characters stare morosely into the audience before an abrupt blackout, Things Do Not End Well.

Working Theater states that their mission “is to produce plays for and about working people.” I’m in love with this, as it can be grating to see another season of plays set in fancy sitting rooms. But Cherry Smoke, with its two-dimensional characters, seems to stereotype the people it wants to portray. Fish is a boorish alcoholic whose penchant for violence is vaguely explained away with “daddy issues.” Bug, who has a steady job and a loving husband, can only find fulfillment in being a mother (yawn). And Cherry is literally unable to survive unless her man is at her side. For a woman who has been living on her own since she was a child, her Ophelia-style breakdown is upsetting… and a little questionable. Finally, while the play’s violent end should come across as shockingly tragic, it instead reads as a foregone conclusion for its poor working class ne’er-do-wells.

With downtrodden characters from beginning to end, Cherry Smoke fails to pack a dramatic punch. Its impact could have been felt, though, if we just knew what Fish was fighting for.

“Frida Liberada” at Urban Stages

Talented, fearless, and a visionary, Frida Kahlo was an art pioneer. Her life was filled with tragedy: a debilitating accident, infidelity, and illness, events well-documented in her self portraits. Frida’s life is also portrayed in the one-woman show Frida Liberada, currently playing at Urban Stages’ Outreach Octoberfest.

The play, written by Brigitte Viellieu-Davis, begins not with Frida’s life, but with her death. Frida, played by Diomargy Nuñez, enters from the back of the house, singing in Spanish about dying and finding peace with God. This Frida is dead and knows it, eager to share the story of her life with the audience. And share she does, speaking about her childhood and her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera–while playing all the characters.

But the most interesting character is Frida herself. Nuñez is an active, exuberant version of the aritst, singing, laughing, and moving about the stage through Lydia Fort’s clean direction. Three upstage panels show Frida’s paintings as she knew them. This Frida is alive and well–on the stage, and in our imaginations.

Frida Liberada plays until November 2nd at Urban Stages. 

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