The new play “Cecilia’s Last Tea Party,” premiering Thursday, May 8, at Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton as the final play of the Passage Theatre season, is set in a small nation on the Pacific Rim of South Asia in the late 1940s. The story enters on a 12-year-old girl whose father, a Western colonial governor, and mother, a native princess, have suddenly disappeared. Billed as a “political fantasia with puppets,” the play is written by Russell Davis.
Davis’ work has been described as whimsical, deep, surreal, complex, magical, like no one else’s. It is also significant for its political undertones and notorious for distinctive word patterns — a spare and careful use of language gathered from various sources including directors and actors who have worked with him.
And that rather describes Davis himself. When I first met him several years ago, I was taking photos for the Dodge Foundation at a gathering of playwrights and teachers. When I asked if I might make his photo, he promptly placed a plate of broccoli on his head and smiled. Not only is he funny, he’s also an experienced circus performer, an expert juggler and unicyclist. The balancing act was very easy for him. Davis went to Circus School and teaches these arts at workshops and schools, including teaching juggling at the Big Apple Circus. “I wanted something active to balance sitting to write,” he says.
Davis calls his new play an “adult story told through the eyes of a 12-year-old” that will appeal to young people as well as adults. Passage artistic director June Ballinger calls it “a family drama about a child awakening to adulthood.” The play takes place during a time of upheaval in Southeast Asia as the native people are claiming their independence not only from the Japanese but also from the colonial western government. Cecilia’s father, Davis says, “is probably a Dutch or British administrator.” “Probably” is a clue to Davis’ work. “As you listen to the play you become aware that this child’s parents are either in prison or executed,” he says. It’s a scary time.
Cecilia’s allies in trying to come to terms with her abandonment are two stuffed animals, Dodo, an ancient pelican, and Dada, a rare Bengal tiger. They are performed by puppets accompanied by actor counterparts. Puppeteer Scott Hitz serves as the consultant for the five puppets being fabricated for this production and has coached the actors in manipulating the puppets to make possible the expression of feelings and movements that are almost life-like.
“Cecilia’s Last Tea Party” is also unique in having an entirely Asian and Indian cast. Actress Nitya Vidyasagar, who plays Cecilia, appears regularly on “Sesame Street” — she’s runs the laundromat on the PBS series.
Davis works in a very intuitive and fantastical way. About eight years ago, he began the first draft of this play. The first scene that he imagined was a child waking up and a dark shadow. “The child has a recurring dream that something is coming across the water to her. I was fascinated by the dialogue going on between Cecilia and the Dark Shadow. They were having an argument about whether they were in a room or at the seashore.” Davis laughs, “Silly things.”
The next scene he envisioned was Cecilia having tea with her stuffed animals. “She’s trying to get them to behave, when actually she is trying to control her own emotions about whether she should run away and find her mother.” She needs to find herself, to grow up, in her changed world. A recurring theme in Davis’ plays is the need to find family and work out the vagaries of life.
Director Will Pomerantz describes Davis’ process as coming from “a profound and distinctive subconscious impetus.” He says that in a way that is hard to define, and that we find the end product “meticulously structured with a very tight logic. The political content is often latent, but profoundly part of the context — issues of power and the individual against larger forces.”
Davis explains his process: “I get attracted through the characters and certain situations and see where that leads me. I make instinctive choices.” The next character to join the developing story in his mind was Billy Krakatoa. Davis obviously enjoys saying “Krakatoa,” the word that led him to the setting for the play. “I knew that Krakatoa is a volcano in Indonesia,” he says. The character who arrived with that name is now a commanding officer. “He is somebody who is suddenly in charge, who is fascinated with this child of the man who used to be in charge. This interested me a lot, but for a while I didn’t know what to do with it.”
After he finished a few drafts, Davis realized that he needed to do some research. “I read about the whole transition that happened when the Japanese just waltzed through Southeast Asia and annihilated the Dutch and British. The whole mystique of the white man was destroyed and then four years later the British, Dutch, and French tried to reassert that authority. I had to get clear on the historical background. The story doesn’t talk about World War II but is clearly informed by that.”
Resonances of Davis’ background also inform this story. His father was an engineer who “built anything from army barracks in Turkey to a hotel in Rome.” The family lived in a number of places in the Middle East, wherever his father’s work took him. Concerned that the children (two boys and a girl) would be buffeted about by so many relocations, their parents sent the three of them to boarding schools in Great Britain when Davis was five years old. The two boys went to St. Bees School, one of the oldest schools in the country and his sister to a “lady’s school.”
Davis came to the United States for college, earning a degree in “English, of course” from Hobart College in upstate New York. With the appropriate accent, he tells me “I read Moby Dick and Brothers Karamazov.” He wonders why he doesn’t write novels as he has an ongoing love affair with Dostoyevsky, Andrew Forrester, and Andre Gide. “I was astonished that anyone could look at the world as they did.”
But playwriting has consumed his heart. “What I love about theater is what happens when everyone gets into the same world, including the people on stage, backstage, and in the audience. With an ensemble of folk, each thing becomes much bigger than our individual work. It’s exciting to hear and see people take words that I wrote and use it as a diving board to put something together. This is better than a novel.”
“Cecilia’s Last Tea Party” will be mounted this summer at the Todd Mountain Theatre Project in Arkville, New York. People’s Light & Theatre in Malvern, PA, has commissioned Davis to write a stage adaptation of the Newberry Award-winning “Crispin: The Cross of Lead” by Avi. From theater to workshops, as well as keeping up with his girlfriend’s art openings, he’s busy getting about the East Coast in his red pickup truck.
Cecilia’s Last Tea Party, previews Thursday and Friday, May 8 and 9, and opening Friday, May 9, 8 p.m., Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Drama by Russell Davis features puppets with actors. Through June 1. $25. 609-392-0766.