The rabbit never quite gets pulled out of the hat in "Yemaya's Belly," a warmhearted but inert bit of magical realism by Quiara Alegria Hudes. More idiosyncratic fable than universal parable, the 85-minute drama charts the journey of Jesus, a boy who dreams of fleeing his unnamed poor Caribbean dictatorship for the lush promise of the United States. Thanks to an erotically charged feather and a cold bottle of Coke, his dreams come true.
Those ordinary objects become charmed talismans in Jesus's odyssey as the themes of death, birth and reconciliation eventually wend their way through the belly of Yemaya, the Queen of the Ocean. The story itself voyages to the bottom of the sea as Jesus and a girl named Maya head for the United States in an open boat. What a tale, right? Yet the play's pregnant ideas and rich theatrical possibilities don't pop out, at least not in the flat production at Signature Theatre.
It's one thing to invite the audience along for a bit of make-believe, but it's another thing to inspire it. "Yemaya's Belly" is resistible for the first hour in part because of rampant singsong acting, the kind that infects lesser children's theater shows that begin with such lines as "Once there was a boy" (which is "Yemaya's" starting point). One can understand why Jose Aranda, as Jesus, performs with wide-eyed naivete, but the synthetic playacting from the rest of the cast is harder to fathom.
Not that Hudes's script makes it easy; the writing continually blooms with poetic turns and illustrative stories. It's a language-driven play, and some of Hudes's literary flourishes are splendid, especially near the end.
When the buffoonish shopkeeper Tico (Joseph W. Lane) soulfully asks that his wife's remains -- a few handfuls of rice, actually, given to him by Jesus -- become his harvest, Hudes's ties-that-bind, circle-of-life ruminations bear beautiful fruit.
But too often, the performers blitz through Hudes's fine-spun language with little concern for meaning or personality. Clifton Alphonzo Duncan at least manages to be restrained and grown-up as Jesus's uncle Jelin, but no one in director Rick DesRochers's cast really creates a flesh-and-blood character.
The pace is brisk, but the smiles are false and the laughter is hollow.
The actors don't get much help from the design, despite the show's fantastical demands. Stephanie Nelson's set is an anchor, figuratively. Literally, it's a sequence of wooden platforms arranged like risers. Aided only by two crates, occasional spurts of stage fog and colored light beamed from the wings by designer Jason Thompson, the story moves dully from Jesus's depressed town to the city and back when his little backwater burns, leaving him homeless. The drab staging takes the idea of deprivation to extremes, with the poverty displayed being less about the underdeveloped world than about theatrical imagination.
The set is problematic because it's geared strictly to accommodate the final sequence, in which the orphans Jesus and Maya (Saskia de Vries, who also plays the deity Yemaya) flee their hopeless little island for the United States. An important ritual is shoved to one side and completely upstaged to make the awkward transformation happen, but the platforms open, the stage turns blue-green, the actors splash in shallow pools, and then, in an underwater scene, Coke bottles float like bubbles. It's lovely, though the real enchantment comes from David Maddox's shimmering original music, melodic at last after an hour of percussive Caribbean rhythms. (At least someone was inspired.)
Here's the paradox: "Yemaya's Belly" is, at bottom, a simple story, not very dramatic, lacking villains or serious internal conflict. (It's like Jesus's definition of a story: "You start at the beginning and say a lot of stuff that happens," he says. "And you have to give good details.")
DesRochers must have been seduced by the trappings -- the gorgeous turns of phrase, the emotional benevolence, the playfulness and wonder. But somewhere along the line, the magic he spotted on the page slipped away.
Yemaya's Belly, by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Directed by Rick DesRochers. Costumes, Jenn Miller. With Tuyet Thi Pham. About 85 minutes. Through Dec. 18 at Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Dr. Call 800-955-5566 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.