Haphazard Magic, Acting in `Shamanism in New Jersey'

By Pressley, Nelson | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 24, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Haphazard Magic, Acting in `Shamanism in New Jersey'

Pressley, Nelson, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

Before you can say "Greetings From Asbury Park," Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" fills the air at George Mason University's TheaterSpace, where Smallbeer Theater is staging Rose Caruso's "Shamanism in New Jersey."

It's a bit of a joke set up visually by the five screens hanging over the stage, filled with postcard images and tourist-bait phrases. ("Discover Historic New Jersey!")

But this base-line image of Jersey gets challenged almost immediately in a slide show that moves from inviting pastoral images to scenes of urban-industrial sprawl. Then come the quieter, more natural sounds of chirping birds, followed by a shadow play in which a young girl gets a mystical visit from an eagle.

This sequence, virtually a play in itself, is the template for "Shamanism in New Jersey." The girl in the shadow play is Alona, whose father - a full-blooded American Indian - rushed Alona back to his native state of Oklahoma after her vision. Alona's mother, a kvetching Jersey gal, was horrified. She hadn't even known her husband was an Indian. That much personal history reveals itself in due course during the first act, a lot of which has to do with teen-age Alona's chronically broken-down car and the gentle mechanic whose fancy she inadvertently captures.

Nick, the mechanic, obviously is drawn in part to her strangeness, and actor Chad Davis emphasizes the curiosity and patience in the role. Tina Frantz's Alona is a quiet, self-contained kid. When she takes him on a drive and reveals bits of her American Indian culture to Nick, he's interested.

"Shamanism" would be a simple and probably predictable play if it confined its intercultural investigation to Alona and Nick. But the dilemma gets complicated, and a little too elliptical for its own good. Alona's Manhattanite cousin, Betty Lou, gets beaten badly - possibly raped, the script hints - and this fact begins to loom over the play.

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