Theater Review: THE UNTRANSLATABLE SECRETS OF NIKKI CORONA (Geffen Playhouse in Westwood)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on September 14, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


A superb cast tackles life and death in José Rivera’s new play The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona, now in its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse. It is an imaginative tale of a woman searching for meaning in the suicide of her twin sister. She engages the help of a service called A Better Orpheus that promises to send messages to the dead through “travelers,” people on the edge of death.

The tone is a variation of magic realism. After the suicide, the dramatic action stills, almost to a kind of inertia, and it feels surprisingly fresh, fascinating even. Not every story needs to chug along with a plucky narrative engine, and Rivera’s poetic dialogue and the production’s non-realistic settings seem well-served by allowing for experimentation. Then it is as if Rivera loses his nerve. Perhaps somewhere in the development process, he, dramaturg Rachel Wiegardt-Egel, and director Jo Bonney decided they could not trust in their dreamy, trippy rhythm. Unpersuasive conflicts and plot questions emerge.

Will Nikki engage the Orpheus service? Will Orlando, the dying man, agree to do it? Will his sister, Noelle fail to stop him? Will Nikki get a crush on Orlando? Will she stick to the contract? If the answer to any of those questions is no, there is no play. More to the point, after the original hefty payment, no one has anything to lose by the arrangement going forward. It’s not as if Nikki is going to kill Orlando. He is dying. His sister is broke and needs the money from A Better Orpheus. Everyone will win.

Perhaps Rivera would have better achieved his goal had he embraced the nature of these questions as rhetorical. It is reductive to approach them with dramatic urgency, reaching for tension that is not there. This doesn’t seem like a play about whether the characters take a particular course of action, but about how it feels when they do.

When we reach the afterlife in the second act, it is a world populated by octopuses and trees. A promising idea. Octopuses are full of sensation, taking in their surroundings with their whole bodies. This is a stark contrast to the way humans often sleepwalk through existence. But this contemplation of mindfulness is quickly diverted to a task-oriented journey of self-improvement. There is even a test at the end to decide whether people are worthy to move on to the next world. Orlando is guided to Nikki while interacting with long dead ancestors and people from his more recent past like a former sex partner, brother, and mother. His epiphanies come like clockwork.

The title gives a broad clue that we are not going to find out the content of Nikki’s message to Abril, and we do not, but nothing else is much of a mystery, which feels at odds with the original tone of the piece. The show is never dull, but it is also rarely as emotionally involving as it might be, especially since the cast is so engaging. There are the makings of something magical and special here, but they do not get the chance to coalesce into something wholly satisfying.

Onahoua Rodriguez ably plays both twins, differentiating them with small behavioral tics and vocal inflections. Cate Scott Campbell is a vivid presence as the owner of the Orpheus business in the first act and as Orlando’s tempestuous guide in the second act. Ricardo Chavira is magnetic as Orlando, funny and sexy, and he skillfully handles the character’s physical and emotional changeability. Zilah Mendoza and Juan Francisco Villa inhabit multiple characters with ease, well-served by costume designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz. The hair and wigs are also terrific.

This production feels like a well-staged workshop rather than a full realization of whatever the undeniably talented José Rivera has set out to create. I hope he gets the chance to work on it further, that it is possible to consider this a developmental production rather than a presentation of a play in its final form.

photos by Darrett Sanders

The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on October 7, 2018
for tickets, call 310.208.5454
or visit Geffen Playhouse

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