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San Marcos Thespians Portray Family Facing Fear of Change in ‘Approaching Zanzibar’

In a room draped in fabric, a woman is dying. Her family is comforting her. The mother of the dying aunt is savoring the moment for she knows it will all be over soon. The father can’t believe his situation; he has lost so many relatives as of late, and his creative spirit is damaged. The kids are scared. The girl is afraid of death. The boy is afraid of breaking a promise made to his sister. And all are waiting.

Death is not a desirable topic for a play. Neither is “the end” or fear of change, but Tina Howe’s Approaching Zanzibar deals with it masterfully.

Performing at 7 p.m. Nov. 14-16 in San Marcos High School’s auditorium, Approaching Zanzibar showcases a funny and endearing story of a family’s road trip to New Mexico to visit their Aunt Olivia, a famous site-specific artist whose medium is fabric, and who is dying of cancer.

Alex Feller plays Olivia. Along the 200-plus-mile, nerve-wracking trip, they meet awe-inspiring characters and have unearthly experiences. Yet throughout those 2,000 miles, the audience feels like they are sharing every moment of it with them. Every character in this play is charming, and relatable in every moment.

The family in itself is dynamic to say the least. The father, Wally, played by Ricardo Leao, is a famous composer who is renowned for writing “The Atlantic Suite,” but right now he has a serious case of writer’s block and fears he will never see another success in his career. His son, Turner, played by Carter Boden, is a child prodigy on the classical guitar and may have already, at age 12, surpassed his father. Turner has his whole musical career ahead of him and gets all of the attention in the family. His sister, Pony, played by Avery Sorenson, is jealous and keenly aware of her second-place position in the family. Throughout the play we see that she feels neglected in the shadow of her brother’s accomplishments and cannot measure up to prodigious brother. She is the only one on the trip who feels genuinely afraid to come face to face with death and deeply fears the upcoming encounter with the dying aunt.

Charlotte, played by Mary Maillard, Pony’s mother, says it is crucial that they all see Olivia before she passes away. Charlotte is going through menopause, and throughout the play we can see and feel her internal struggle with the realization that she will not be able to bring new life into the world ever again.

What makes Howe’s play so unique, though, is the set and lighting design by professional designer Theodore Michael Dolas. The audience will immediately notice the moment they enter the theater that the set is Spartan with black cubes, benches, chairs and four white panels of fabric hung from the rafters. With the first scene, however, these elements become draped in fabric just as Olivia has draped spiritual sites in the Southwest in her art installations. This decisive choice of playwright Howe represents Aunt Olivia’s favorite art medium in environmental art.

Throughout the play, the characters make many references to her work, but nothing speaks louder than her work being represented on stage. The usage of fabric as anything — from waves hitting a boat to the sides of a car — give the play almost a storybook quality, yet it doesn't distract from the actors on stage. To manipulate the fabric, director David Holmes decided to use a Japanese theater technique called kuroko. Translated this means “black person, black clothes.”

We might see the kuroko as ninjas dressed in black to create the different locations for the play. They manipulate things that must move but are not necessarily human. In the play, these ninjas flap large bolts of fabric laid out on the stage to create a boat on the water, a mountain stream and the mountains themselves. Emma Inglehart and Stacy Cannon are two of the kuroko who technically are not characters in the play but who are on stage almost the entirety of the performance.

“It’s a lot of responsibility!” Cannon said. “It’s fun to be able to be on stage, but no one is looking at you!”

Inglehart added: “It’s different from what I usually do.”

When asked who came up with the different looks of the stage, the kuroko said they pitched ideas out during rehearsal and said, “If you have strong input, Mr. Holmes will usually take it into consideration.”

Holmes, director at San Marcos for the past 30 years, announced his retirement this year. Approaching Zanzibar will be the last fall play under his direction at San Marcos. From A to Z, Approaching Zanzibar marks Holmes’ farewell to high school drama.

The play symbolizes how we might face change and our fears of change. Sometimes, as in Approaching Zanzibar, it is best to embrace the coming change with hope and confidence that this is not the end but another beginning.

Approaching Zanzibar is playing for only three nights. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for students. Click here for information.

— Jason Gonzalez Larsen is a freshman at San Marcos High School.

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