Jose Rivera’s Sonnets soars to new heights in Wake Forest production

by Keith Barber

If the purpose of drama is to invoke a sense of wonder in the viewer — to pitch us out from the comfort of our everyday mundane world and pull us, like a tractor beam, into unknown territory — then Wake Forest University Theatre’s production of José Rivera’s Sonnets for an Old Century achieves that aim.

The place inside ourselves is one we knew very well in childhood but lose touch with over the years. That theme is immediately touched upon in the play’s first sonnet. Performed marvelously by Jenny Malarkey, the character tells of her experience with a powerful force in the universe, a black hole of sorts that landed in her backyard when she was eight years old. She spent her life studying what the force was but never got a satisfactory answer. She asked the existential question, “Will it eat us or love us?” One by one, the nine cast members express their last thought as the dancers act out their words. The ee cummings poem included in the playbill then begins to resonate.

“I who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birthday of life and of love and wings; and of the gay great happening illimitably earth,” cummings once wrote.

In the end, the monologues are not a reminder of the finite nature of life but rather an affirmation that every day means something.

A beautiful collaboration between the university’s theatre and dance departments, “Sonnets” is greater than the sum of its parts. Directors Cindy Gendrich and Christina Tsoules Soriano aptly describe Rivera’s words as “luscious.” Each character’s monologue comes from a place deep inside a beautiful mind. It reminds the audience that all of us walk around with internal monologues churning inside. Sonnets asks the burning question: If you could only choose one monologue to share with the world, which one would you choose? Our experiences shape us but we have the power to decide what defines us. This truth, along with many others, is fully expressed throughout Sonnets.

The play opens with cast members dressed in all white, descending the stairs of the theater and taking their places onstage in a doctor’s waiting room of sorts. An angel, played by Ae’Jay Mitchell, enters stage right on a moon cutout suspended by a zip line. The angel tells nine characters prepared to cross the ultimate threshold they have an opportunity to share one last thought with the world.

“Remember, your words go out to the universe,” he advises.

The characters then step to the microphone and share their final thoughts. One female character speculates that she may have merely been the creation of her mother’s vivid imagination. She speaks of the many nights her mother read to her in bed before falling asleep beside her — side by side, the dreamer and the dream.

One character drops pearls of wisdom like “Lies make your lips smaller,” and “You don’t have to choose between passion and money.” Accompanied by an angel playing the saxophone, the character’s words are acted out by the dancers, often in amusing fashion. One angel is bitter about the fact he created “The Fonz” character from “Happy Days” but never received credit, while another spins an elaborate tale of his and his father’s daring escape from prison.

The actors and dancers in Sonnets — Mitchell, Malarkey, Guy Aiken, Andy Belt, Christopher D’Auria, Mackenzie Finnegan, Dean D. Guerra, Victoria Hill, Paige Klesing, Louis Frazier, Andrew Newton, Anita Ostrovsky, Alexhia Price, Stepheny Rayburn, Cam Roberts, Rebecca Speas, Morgan Stumbers, Lizzy Thomas and Kathryn Tully — did a phenomenal job. One would expect nothing less from a Wake Forest Theatre production.

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Left to right: Mackenzie Finnegan, Kathryn Tully, Stephany Rayburnand Anita Ostrovsky of the WFU Theatre pro- duction of Sonnets for anOld Century. (photo by Ken Bennett)