16th Street's Ann Filmer visits Boyland

April 27, 2011

 

Imagine “Waiting for Godot: The Nickelodeon Version,” and you’ve got some idea of Javier Malpica’s two-hander Our Dad Is in Atlantis. Two Mexico City brothers, 8 and 11, who’ve been abruptly moved to the country wonder where their father has gone and when he’ll be back. Their mother is dead. The set is minimal, the dialogue spare and packed with non sequiturs. Much about the situation must be inferred. Everything is funny and devastating at once.

Asked about the Beckett-ian minimalism, 16th Street Theater director Ann Filmer says, “I’m a director who doesn’t like anything unnecessary. For me, it was the only way to do the play, to have as little as possible to tell the story.” She also chose not to use child actors. “I’m a big fan of Anna Deavere Smith,” says Filmer. “And she says, ‘If a woman can’t speak for a man, if a white person can’t speak for a black person, we inhibit the spirit of theater.’”

In directing the two actors, both in their early 20s, Filmer relied partly on her experience with her daughter, who’s about to turn six. “But we were clear,” she says. “It’s already written in the voice of a young person. So, it will work as long as you are fully engaged in that one moment, right THEN!” She laughs. “The thing that makes us adults is we analyze, and we hem and we haw, and we’re polite. We do all these weird things, because our minds are always spinning: ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ But with kids it’s like: ‘I want that game! Give me that game! I’m cold! I’m thirsty! Get away from me, you’re bugging me! I hate you! … Ooooo, a thousand milkshakes!’”

“That’s a challenge for the actors. You’re supposed to have this through line, and you have your super-objective, and you’re supposed to know where you’re going at all times and what you want. But if you’re a kid, you want THIS, and then you’re crying, and then you’re watching TV. And you cannot let the crying bleed into the watching TV—it’s a totally new moment.”

Filmer drew on her background in movement—she majored in dance—to bring the child characters to life. At first, she says, the performers were uncomfortable with that. “You’re told as an actor: ‘Be still, don’t move around too much, you want to be solid and grounded and disciplined.’ And those are all very good things, but when you’re playing a younger person you need to show more in your body.” Part of the interest of the piece is watching the “boys” fidget, slump, dart around, and roll their eyes. They’re kids, but Todd Garcia also conveys the older brother’s anxiety, sadness, and premature burden of responsibility, while Remy Ortiz delivers the younger child’s intermittent but boundless sense of loss.

Filmer fell in love with the play as soon as she read it, she says. “I was drawn to these two boys. I was just sucked in, then devastated at the end. And it was so nice to get a perspective outside my own little worldview, a perspective on the dream of crossing the border, coming to America—and done in such an intimate and personal way.”

Filmer, now in the throes of determining 16th Street’s 2012 season, says, “I’m always trying to think, ‘What’s on our minds now?’ And everything’s changing so quickly! I don’t know what we’re going to be obsessed with—or what we’re gonna be ignoring and should be obsessed with—next year. I’m trying not to be a total depressive freak.”