Cecilia (Nitya Vidyasagar) is having a disturbing dream. Although the 12 year-old has the companionship of two stuffed toy animals — Dodo, a pelican and Dada, a tiger — she remains visibly upset that her bed is suddenly afloat on the ocean and the moon has appeared where the bedroom ceiling had been. Cecilia’s dream is a recurring one in Russell Davis’ eerily envisioned and psychologically mutable play set in a small nation on the Pacific rim of South Asia in the 1940s. A “Dark Shadow” (Indika Senanayake) stands nearby and speaks Cecilia’s thoughts in her dream state, as well as being the voices of Dodo and Dada.
Cecilia is a bright, disarming child who has been placed in the care of a distant relative she calls Aunt Tambora (Amy Kim Waschke) by the newly entrenched governmental authority. It appears that Cecilia’s parents have been taken abruptly from their home following a military coup. Aunt Tambora is a stern and unsympathetic woman who makes every effort, however, to be conciliatory in the presence of Colonel Billy Krakatoa (Robert Wu). Krakatoa is an officer who is proud to declare that “the British and the Dutch are no more. I’m in charge now.” He has also begun to use the home as his own and engages Celia in odd testy conversations at the tea table that is set in the court yard in front of the family’s white house (handsomely designed by Yoshi Tanokura). A cluster of tropical shrubs enhances the setting
Although Krakatoa fails to engage the wary Cecilia, his presence and probing is less threatening than they are vaguely mysterious. Celia would prefer to converse with Dodo and Dada. Aunt Tambora finds the toys generally unnerving and would like nothing better than to see them disposed of. A scene in which Cecilia reads to herself stories from the Bible and proceeds to question their historical accuracy is a curious element in the play and one that I failed to grasp. The topical subtext of the play, in which we see how this child protects herself emotionally and in reality in the wake of political turmoil is clear enough.
As Cecilia, Vidyasager’s large dark eyes speak reams. Waschke is excellent as the distant relative who takes her mind off the troubles surrounding the family by doing jigsaw puzzles. Senanayake is also very fine as the specifically peripheral Dark Shadow. The climactic moments of the play include an apparently happy resolve of Cecilia’s anxieties. We are also treated to an unexpected transformation of the toys. This is reflected in a lovely dance with brightly colored ribbons performed by Cecilia and the Dark Shadow.
Watching Davis’ play, now having its world premiere by Trenton’s Passage Theatre Company, I was reminded of the opening scene in “A Seagull in the Hamptons” (Emily Mann’s complete re-write of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”) now at the McCarter Theater Center. In “Seagull,” the young aspiring writer presents a play before his family that is too abstract and untraditional in form for them to fully appreciate. Davis’ play is also far from traditional. But it is also hypnotic, and like the snippet from Chekhov’s young writer casts a unique spell of its own. Dennis Parichy’s atmospheric lighting goes a long way to cast the right shadows. One does not necessary insist on a play such as this being completely accessible. Whatever it is, I’m still thinking about it. Hopefully future audiences will also find something to think about.
— Simon Saltzman
“Cecilia’s Last Tea Party,” through Sunday, June 1, Passage Theater, Mill Hilll Playhouse, Front and Montgomery Streets, Trenton. $25. 609-392-0766.