Theater Review of 'Brainpeople' at the Rorschach Theater

Amanda Thickpenny and Regina Aquino in Rorschach Theatre's stark post-apocalyptic tale of an adult orphan who grieves for her parents.
Amanda Thickpenny and Regina Aquino in Rorschach Theatre's stark post-apocalyptic tale of an adult orphan who grieves for her parents. (By C. Stanley Photography)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Some plays look just plain hard as you watch them being performed, and José Rivera's "Brainpeople" is one of them. The setting is a futuristic dystopia, the plot unfolds in real time during a 90-minute dinner party and one of the guests suffers from a spectacular case of multiple personality disorder.

That is the kind of challenge that Rorschach Theatre loves, of course. The company's pattern has been to embrace dense, intellectually aggressive material, and Rorschach scored big with Rivera's daring "References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot" a few seasons ago.

That lyrical play had more colorful characters and plot, though, than the stark "Brainpeople," being staged in the tiny Lab Theatre at Georgetown University's Davis Performing Arts Center. (Rorschach's production of Jason Grote's "1001" continues through Friday in the main theater upstairs.) "Brainpeople" is a grim and quirky quest to bend time, as an adult orphan continues to grieve for her long-dead parents.

Director Catherine Tripp practically thrusts the audience tableside at this small dinner gathering. Patrons sit in two rows on either side of the stage, close enough to admire set and prop designer Justine Light's glass goblets and handsome napkin rings.

The seating is also close enough to prompt speculation about the meat served on skewers, which hostess Mayannah tells her guests is tiger. Mayannah is a wealthy survivor of a society that's apparently under siege (the details are sketchy, but there is a curfew, with raids and sirens heard just outside); she has offered $20,000 to the strangers Rosemary (the one with split personalities) and Ani (comparatively mousy and heartbroken) if they can handle her meal all the way through dessert.

Why? Let's just say Mayannah had something against the particular tiger that's being served on three plates.

It's a macabre setup that Rivera leavens only a little with Ani's deadpan punch lines -- and that Tripp's designers don't overdo even with an array of crucifixes and candles dominating the decor. That puts the pressure on the characters and their elaborate back stories, rendered with Rivera's usual florid poetry and philosophical speculations. The script depends heavily on a kind of spooky, time-warping mood.

What makes this play hard, then, is its steep demand on actors, particularly the performer channeling Rosemary's various personae (which include a well-mannered woman and a surly Liverpudlian would-be rock star). The rapidly changing accents and attitudes are tough to pull off in such close quarters, and the effort inevitably shows in Monalisa Arias's game but unconvincing performance. Regina Aquino has it easier as Mayannah, and she brings entitlement and elegance to the character, though she doesn't quite tap into the Edgar Allan Poe vibe that Rivera flirts with.

Amanda Thickpenny fares better with Ani's defensive Everywoman gags about the strangeness of it all, but each performer really blooms in the play's surprising final moments. The lucid ending doesn't entirely validate the foggy ride, though, which ultimately plays like a twisted tunnel of an orphaned girl's love.

Brainpeople, by José Rivera. Directed by Catherine Tripp. Costumes, Lynly A. Saunders; lights, Sam Kitchel; sound design, Neil McFadden. About 90 minutes. Through July 26 at Georgetown University's Davis Performing Arts Center, 37th and O streets NW. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit

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