John Patrick Shanley's new play Candlelight is sort of like West Side Story--but with 10-year-olds, Jim Henson-esque demons, and a scantily clad fairy. Directed by Lori Kee, Candlelight, a Nuyorican fairytale set in Brooklyn, receives its world premiere at the New Ohio Theatre in the daring and usually competent hands of Nylon Fusion Theatre Company.
On the one hand, I'm proud of Shanley for attempting to pull off something this bizarre. That he's still experimenting at this point in his long and highly successful career speaks volumes about his courageous artistry. So it's reluctantly that I admit Candlelight just didn't work for me. Before telling you why, let's look at the positives.
As two starry-eyed 10-year-olds with big crushes on each other, Ivette Dumeng and Marc Reign are absolutely adorable. Dumeng is perfect as Esperanza, a little girl with an overactive imagination; and Reign is beautiful as young dreamer Tito, who approaches Esperanza as a pilgrim might a shrine (he's even started praying to her). At once naively bold and innocently shy, always unable to keep still, they give the perfect impression of 1o-year-olds. In fact, when it's only the two of them onstage, Candlelight is charming.
Secondly, there's a reason Shanley has been awarded a Tony, Academy Award, Pulitzer Prize, and Lifetime Achievement: he's pretty good at this writing stuff. Candlelight has some definite standout lines and genuinely beautiful moments. Equally delightful is the concept--or at least, once again, it sounds delightful in theory. And now we come to the bizarre part.
"Being 10 is weird," Tito says. He couldn't be more right. For starters, Tito keeps a pet demon given to him by his Venezuelan uncle, which emerges as a black, hairy hand from inside his oatmeal pot. Esperanza's dead, damned mother dances at the edges of reality, and when the devil breaks into Esperanza's bedroom at night in the guise of her drunk father, God sends a giant squirrel to rescue her. Nor does Shanley stop at angels and demons. Esperanza's toy fairy, her bedroom mirror, and her mother's possessed robe also invade the little girl's dreams--or is it waking life? Candlelight blurs the line between reality and imagination a few too many times.
While there is a delightfully quirky, Jim Henson element to these characters, the way they interact with the story is nonsensical. In an overly long opening scene in Esperanza's bedroom, one character after another, plus Mr. Bones--a skeleton who only appears this one time--parade around her darkened room and shout various commands at her. A purposeful structure that sets up the rest of the play is notably absent. While we do get a devil-squirrel fight that's rather fun, it's not clear what this scene is accomplishing.
Sadly, I found that to be the case for most of the play. An imaginative cast of characters and a delightful disregard for theatrical conventions seem like a recipe for success, but the absence of a strong plot and cohesive tone cause Candlelight to quickly fly off the rails. Still, I'll give Shanley and the team credit for trying.
‘Candlelight’ runs through Dec 19 at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher Street). For tickets and more info, see the link below: