Nylon Fusion’s unsettling world premiere of John Patrick Shanley’s ‘Candlelight’ at Off-Off-Broadway’s New Ohio Theatre

Self-described as “a Nuyorican comic romantic tragedy covered with magic and dipped in Brooklyn blood,” Nylon Fusion Theatre Company’s world premiere of Candlelight by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley, an advisory board member who has been working with them for years, is bizarre, experimental, and unlike anything else he’s ever written for the stage or screen. So if you’re looking for a narrative akin to Outside Mullingar, Doubt, or even Moonstruck, you won’t find it here.

Ivette Dumeng and Darlene Tejeiro. Photo by Al Foote III.

Directed by Lori Kee and playing a limited engagement at the New Ohio Theatre, the profoundly unsettling new play considers the traumatic effects of parental loss and abuse on a ten-year-old girl named Esperanza, living in Brooklyn’s Puerto Rican community. In her bedroom after celebrating her birthday party with too much sugar and dancing with her crush Tito, the reality of her situation – a mother who committed suicide, leaving her alone to deal with her drunken father Hector, who verbally and physically assaults her – manifests in sometimes comical but increasingly disturbing and ultimately violent night-time dreams, nightmares, and psycho-sexual fantasies that become fused with even more tragic actualities.

Perhaps best suited for review by a psychoanalyst, the story is brimming with symbols and cultural references that bespeak the girl’s distraught emotional state and hope (English for Esperanza) for an escape from reality, for love, and for the wish of Tito (whose father is dead and whose mother is severely depressed) to be able to fly away from Earth to something better. In her hyper-active psyche, the inanimate objects in her room – her doll, a mirror, her mother’s robe – come to life, her father is transformed into the devil, the squirrel she feeds peanuts to outside her window metamorphoses into her giant anthropomorphic champion, and her deceased mother Colette, who delighted in telling her stories of magic, appears.

Ivette Dumeng and Alfredo Diaz. Photo by Al Foote III.

Throughout all the wild imaginings are borrowings from Peter Pan (the childhood dream of flying; a cheeky fairy) and Catholicism (a cross hangs over Esperanza’s bed; Tito, who sees her resemblance to the Virgin of Guadalupe, prays to her; a demon in his kitchen tries to possess his classmate Paulie), and the fundamental inspiration of Romeo and Juliet (young love doomed by familial dysfunction and the betrayal of a friend), in an updated surreal retelling of the Shakespearean tragedy.

Marc Reign and Ivette Dumeng. Photo by Al Foote III.

A compelling cast of six fully embraces the troubled characters and unbridled visions of Shanley’s tale. Ivette Dumeng and Marc Reign star as the ill-fated Esperanza and Tito, bringing empathy to their roles of the pre-pubescent children who love to dance, but who’ve been forced to grow up too quickly by the unstable adults in their lives (with the playwright often giving them overly mature lines, thoughts, and actions for their age). Alfredo Diaz is an erratic and hateful menace as Hector and the Devil incarnate, and Darlene Tejeiro provides a haunting presence as the ghost of the girl’s mother (and doubling as her obsessed robe). As Paulie, the excellent John Cencio Burgos (who also portrays the mirror) delivers the angst of a pre-teen outsider unable to deal with his budding sexuality, jealous over Tito’s relationship with Esperanza, and feeling betrayed by his only friend, triggering the brutal finale and releasing them all from their hellish suffering.

Marc Reign and John Cencio Burgos. Photo by Al Foote III.

Rounding out the company is Christina Toth in the dual roles of Mabel, both Esperanza’s foster mother and a fairy from Canada (where Esperanza longs to go), who gracefully dances and flits around the stage nearly naked, in a role that seems more indicative of an adult male playwright’s fantasy than that of a ten-year-old girl. It also feels a bit hypocritical in a play that spotlights the devastating impact of sexual abuse, while engaging in the gratuitous sexploitation of the female body. It should also be noted that all the men in the production remain fully clothed, even though the devil Hector loses his genitalia (to the nut-eating squirrel!).

Supernatural red lighting by Wilburn Bonnell, an amusing animated projection design by Janet Bentley, and eerie sound by Andy Evan Cohen indicate the creepy shifts from reality to fantasy. Elizabeth Chaney’s set efficiently changes to the different locales of the story, and costumes by Janet Mervin are suited to the personalities and visions. Movement by Tatyana Kot is well executed by the talented cast, as is the fight choreography by Randall Rodriguez.

Candlelight is a provocative new work that defies the signature style of its acclaimed writer. If you’re in the market for something different and challenging, with themes that delve into serious issues of psychology and sociopathy with imagination and theatricality, this is a show to be seen and pondered.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.

Candlelight plays through Sunday, December 19, 2021, at Nylon Fusion Theatre Company, performing at the New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, NYC. For tickets ($45 for general admission), go online. Proof of vaccination is required for admittance into the theater and masks must be worn by all audience members.


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