By Walter Murphy . . . Extended thru June 4 . . .

Great productions let the audience into the lives of its characters, to experience and share their feelings, to relate to their frustrations, to make good and bad decisions, to have hopes and dreams, to laugh and cry, to enter their lives briefly for two acts. Vámonos, currently playing at the INTAR theater, is such a production.

The play revolves around the families of two Dominican-American sisters, Juana (Cindy Peralta) and Anna (Yohanna Florentino), living in the Bronx. The play opens as the characters begin their daily routines—school for the children, work for the adults. Quickly, each persona is revealed. Anna and husband Pablo (Cesar J. Rosado) playfully dance while imagining better lives in New Jersey. Their children, Julie ( Kiara Lauren) and Junior (Ansi Rodriguez), assume their roles of studious big sister, silly younger brother. Julie has “visions.” She foretells a world-ending event, but her family discounts her story, because, they say, her abuela warned of the same types of things and nothing ever happened.

Cesar J. Rosado, Yohanna Florentino, Cindy Peralta

We then meet older sister Juana’s children, Yoira (Angela Reynoso) and Edward (Denzel Rodriquez). Slightly older than Julie and Junior, they spar over their responsibilities and how they plan to move on with their lives. We also learn that their older brother, Alex, is in the Army and that their father is in the Dominican Republic, supporting the mother of a new, younger child of his. Their mother, Juana, points out she is still married and making the best of the situation. What seems like ordinary lives for both families . . . is soon to explode. It is early on the morning of September 11, 2001. They, and the audience, experience the horror that unfolds on that day. In two flashes, lives change instantly.

The second act is a year later, November 2002. In the interim, Yoira has given birth to a baby boy, Christian. The scene opens in Juana’s apartment following the baptism. It is a joyous and, at times, raucous occasion. The dialogue is joyful, funny, and angry, with no lack of topics: the difference between dreams and visions; what it means to be a man; racial stereotypes; faith; God; U.S. foreign policy; war as an economic driver; how Blacks have taught Whites; the military as an alternative to college; natural baseball ability for Dominicans/ Muslims post 9/11; Paul McCartney and how white are the Beatles; Juan Luis Guerra; New Jersey; and teenage crushes and dating. The characters’ interactions capture an intimate family, at once supporting and loving, with a physicality that can feel contentious—like real families. For all the joy and humor, the play ends with a terrifying one-two punch of emotions, watching two families at the mercy of events beyond their control. Absolutely gut-wrenching and gripping.

Cindy Peralta, Yohanna Florentino

The intimate setting of the theater contributes to the heightened emotional impact of the performances. It’s hard to distance yourself from the energy of an actor performing virtually next to you. And you don’t want to—you feel fortunate to, for almost two hours, be a part of this family. The set is an apartment in the Bronx. Designed by Rodrigo Escalante, the limited space (i.e. kitchen, living room and bedroom) is used to great effect as characters pair off for conversations while accommodating all seven characters for most of the performance. Furniture, light fixtures, cabinets and appliances are all of the era and, rightly, slightly used. Lighting and sound design, Alberto Ruiz and German Martinez, respectively, were perfect for the space. The audio is important to the story and it heightens the experience especially when news clips play.

In my opinion, the heightened emotional charge of the play was created through multimedia (by Stefania Bulbarella) projection and video design. Projected onto two walls of the apartment was the horror of 9/11, shown to chilling effect. I hadn’t seen the actual footage in years and it was just as disturbing to see it now as it was then. Followed by footage of actual news coverage of the lead up to the Iraq War, since proven to be lies, revived the anger and disbelief I experienced at the time. These events had the most catastrophic effect on the family, as Alex, thought to be in Germany, called home to say he was in Kuwait. Watching and listening to the coverage, the families realized that their son/brother/cousin was going to war.

Ansi A. Rodriguez, Cindy Peralta

First time playwright (wow) Julissa Contreras, was masterful in creating a story set in a time of extreme tension, yet with so much humanity. The family characters were funny, wise, caring, and supportive. She sent us back in time, with references to Brad Pitt, Sabrina the witch, sharing the Internet, Playstations, Lakers and Knicks during Lakers Showtime, telephones hung on the wall, refrigerator-sized TVs, calling into radio stations to win tickets, and “W” playing golf and talking about national security (simultaneously). It was fun to revisit but those times were also very dark. Ms. Contreras brilliantly captured the joy and horror of the era.

Kudos to Tatyana-Marie Carlo, who directed a cast of seven boisterous characters. She paced the performances just right so that the play could build to its explosive conclusion. A director’s efforts aren’t always seen by the audience, but here was a well-drilled troupe, ready, willing and able to perform to their best abilities.

And the performances. It wouldn’t be fair to mention one or two or three actors who were extraordinary, so I won’t. They were ALL outstanding! They were: Cindy Peralta, Angela Reynoso, Denzel Rodriquez, Cesar J. Rosado, Yohanna Florentino, Kiara Lauren, and Ansi Rodriguez. Thank you for a wonderful evening.

Please note. Some of the narration is in Spanish. However, I attended with someone who understands no Spanish and she thoroughly enjoyed and followed the story. It is worth it. Vámonos!

Vámonos. Through May 21 at INTAR Theater (500 West 52nd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues). Presented by INTAR/Radio Drama Network. 

Photos: Carol Rosegg