Review: ‘By The Waters of Babylon’ at The Phoenix Theatre (***)

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Robert Schenkkan is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright best known for “The Kentucky Cycle.” In addition to the Pulitzer, he has won an Emmy for his television work, and a Tony for his play, “All The Way.”

“By the Waters of Babylon” was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and is now presented in the Bay Area for the first time.

So, this is a production with excellent bona fides.  It is well staged, and beautifully acted, but at times the story is muddled,, and the relationship between a young man and an older woman is difficult to understand.

Arturo, a refugee from Cuba, feels his cultural exile very intensely. He is working in the garden of the widow, Catherine. They are in Austsin, Texas, but also “By the Waters of Babylon,” which is to say they both feel exiled.

Catherine, a complex and passionate woman, has lost track of her vitality, living alone and ostracized by her neighbors. Her garden has dried up.  Arturo awakens her spirit with his tales of old Havana. She warms to him, and asks him to teach her how to fix Mojitas, a popular Cuban cocktail.

As they drink and talk, character and history are revealed. Catherine is not the elderly racist she first appears to be. She has a storied life and an alert mind.  Arturo is a mystic, who, escaping from Cuba on a boat with comrades who drowned, had a direct encounter with the orisha Yemaya, goddess of the ocean. He believes she saved him from drowning.

Neva Marie Hutchinson as Catherine and Michael Gonzalez as Angelo, in "By The Waters of Babylon" by Robert Schenkan.
NevaMarie Hutchinson as Catherine and Michael Angelo Gonzalez as Ar, in “By The Waters of Babylon” by Robert Schenkan.

In a mysterious way, we seem to be watching an encounter between Yemaya, manifesting in Catherine, and her young lover, perhaps a “child” or initiate of the orisha Shango, god of masculinity. Catherine and Arturo enter into the world of archetyes.

As this younger man and much older woman become actual lovers, the play takes on an appealing edginess. Both of the experienced and capable actors achieve emotional depths making us care very much about Catherine and Arturo.

The play opens and closes with a brief and well-executed dance by the mysterious Eleggua, the trickster orisha. By tradition, Santeria ceremonies always open with a call to Ellegua. He is the orisha who opens the way.

This is all interesting and affecting, but something is lacking.

Although many stories are told, the immediate story unfolding before us never quite comes into full focus. The result is a play that captures our emotions and communicates hidden spiritual realities, but doesn’t quite succeed at the level of simple narrative. And audiences unfamiliar with the traditions of Santeria may be confused.

It is hard to say if this makes the play an interesting failure. The ability to capture the feel of religious and mystical experience is one of Schenkkan’s playwrighting gifts, and this makes the play well worth attending. Still, one may leave the theatre feeling titillated but a bit unsatisfied.

“By the Waters of Babylon” continues at the Phoenix Theatre through October 15th. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ***
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“The Waters of Babylon” by Robert Schenkan. Director: Bruce Bierman. Set: Brian Cagle. Lighting: Ian Walker. 

Cast:

Catherine: Neva Marie Hutchinson. Arturo: Michael Angelo Gonzalez.

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