by Carole Di Tosti . . .
What better way to return to live theater than to experience Bruce Willis’s and The Burgess Group’s presentation of Charles Cissel’s comedic, dark romp My Mother’s Severed Head. The production, scheduled from 10th of September to 2nd of October, opening on the 13th of September is playing at Theatre Row, and what a blast.
The “wild and crazy” ensemble piece stars Luis Alberto Garcia, Katelyn Sparks, Nana Ponceleon and Giancarlo Herrera. Camilo Sanchez Lobo, the talented guitarist who plays with appropriate wit and cheek throughout, accompanies the hijinks adding his unique, vibrant character to the mix.
The story and secondary plot leaps, sways, pings and gallivants with a brisk pace, journeying audience members on an emotional roller coaster ride to a satisfying conclusion. Though, at times, the through line appears jagged and wonky, that is the charm of this unique production directed by Richard Caliban. In its madcap tomfoolery, it makes complete sense.
The basic premise is a magical phantasmagoria. Robert’s mother, having suffered an incredible and traumatic death, has lost her head over it. Not only do Robert (the fine Giancarlo Herrera) and his dad (the emotive Luis Alberto Garcia) suffer from the shock of losing her, they are unable to acknowledge the pain and terror of her loss. Thus, magically she remains present as the “head” of the family because they cannot bear to part from her. Her disembodied head is perched in a sacred place on top of an altar, where father and son venerate her.
On the other hand, the mother (the wonderful Nana Ponceleon has fun with the role) sports different intentions than her husband and beloved son. She doesn’t want to be “worshipped” in this way. The difficulty remains to communicate to them what she wishes. However, they are so blinded to their pain and their identity being bonded with her in death, they cannot extricate themselves from under her tremendous influence over their lives. Even though Robert has a writing/directing career to pursue, his father forces him to put his plans on a back burner to help take care of the bar where his mother’s head “resides” in the back room which is fantastically decorated for her “Day of the Dead” memorial.
The situation would have remained static because extreme psychological and traumatic griefs often are suppressed unless the individuals experiencing them get trauma or death counseling. Robert and his father do not appear to be the type, concerned more with haranguing each other than facing their grievous loss.
The linchpin to move events off the family’s moribund stasis comes in the form of the excellent Katelyn Sparks who portrays the actor that Robert hires for a play he has written and intends to produce. Humorously, the character reveals the extent to which she is willing to contort herself to fit the role Robert wishes her to play. It seems an ancient throwback to Hollywoodland. However, considering what actors go through to get the chance to perform, her behaviors to endear herself to Robert, which involve breaking her nose and accompanying him to a “porn” parlor to understand “the ways of manliness” are not uncharacteristic.
In the process of her research for the role, she begins to understand her own personal life traumas. Sparks manages to wend her way discussing the lowest points of her character’s life with clarity during a humorous recital to awaken herself to healing. With the help of the mother (the disembodied head who communicates to her) both of the women enlighten the men and inspire them to change. After Robert and his dad confront their inner angst and torment about the loss of mama in such a gruesome, accidental way, they are able to resolve their separation issues just in time for The Day of the Dead celebration. The family’s journey has been a sardonic “death in life” ride, and in the end, “all’s well that ends well.”
Special kudos to Wesley Cornwell’s scenic design and Daniela Fresand’s lighting design. Their efforts provide the appropriate meld with striking color and memorable vibrance. The result is an energizing send-off to the events, as well an atmospheric enhancement to the revelatory “shake-up” at the play’s conclusion. Cissell, friend of the Broadway alum, TV and film film star Willis, is the playwright of WALLOP, Organic Shrapnel and MUST to name a few. The latter production was supported by Willis in 2017 at Theater at St. Clements in New York City where Cissell’s plays have been performed.
My Mother’s Severed Head is one that should be seen, especially if you have been starved for live theater. It is rather an ebullient resurrection from theaters’ pandemic state of doldrums and hibernation. Its splendid set and lighting, music, performances and magical absurdity are an enlivening celebration for us to celebrate what is best about live theater.
The production runs 75 minutes. You can purchase tickets until it closes on October 2nd at the Theater Row website https://bfany.org/theatre-row/
Photos: Russ Rowland