The program for Mixed Blood Theatre’s production of “Elemeno Pea” features a black and white image of a house teetering on the edge of a boulder. Smoke plumes from its chimney as it hovers above an ocean, and at first glance, the not-so-subtle foreshadowing comes this close to making you believe you’re about to sit through another mundane living room drama. While this piece goes down among the sofas, tea cozies and ocean-view windows, it cleverly and winningly beats the pulp out of any average expectations.
“Elemeno Pea” takes place deep in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts in an estate called “Island Haven,” spotted with a strange amalgam of the cultural elite and their “help.” A member of the latter group, Simone, works as a personal assistant for Michaela, the trophy wife of a New York ad-man. She instigates the tension of the piece when she invites Devon, her working-class sister from their hometown of Buffalo, New York, to stay at the debonair home with herself and Michaela. Once the culture shock of the privileged versus the less privileged settles in, all sorts of juicy social judgments throw themselves into the narrative, making for an eventful afternoon among the boat shoes and decorative Mallard figurines.
What makes this production work, first and foremost, is the cohesiveness of the ensemble. Every actor in the cast plays to their operation in the plot impeccably, nuancing moments with specific character choices that reel the audience in deeper with them. Sun Mee Chomet, the actress who plays Devon, is a stand-out, balancing a calculated mixture of sassy-but-smart stature with an irrefutable longing for acceptance from her sister. Her ability to procure huge laughs from the audience in an instant is remarkable, and she handles drama with equal skill, knowing how to let silence wash over a scene with care and focus. This range is present in every performer and they take the viewers through their world, leading them from moment to moment without telling them how to feel, instead opting to let the play do the work.
And the work that the play does is complex. Molly Smith Metzler has a grasp on language that harnesses comedic timing in a way that most playwrights are unable to master. She uses sentences wisely, placing them in a deliberate order that establishes rhythms only to break them for a palpable effect on her audience. Laughs were spread generously across the Mixed Blood tonight, and the humor didn’t only have an entertainment value, but it built character in a way that made the drama of the piece fraught with potency. The chuckles weren’t always a response to something necessarily funny—they were the troubling laughs, the sounds that insinuate something sinister is around the corner. Metzler used tight vernacular and biting language to give dimension to characters that could have easily been portrayed as overwrought stereotypes.
The largest reason this piece is effective, though, is the work of director Mark Valdez paired with Metzler’s socially conscious content. His work is spot on and reflects the cultural themes present in “Elemeno Pea,” posing questions about how class and race intertwine in the United States. Valdez intentionally cast actors from varying racial backgrounds in different positions of status in the play, asserting that preconceived notions that match financial stance or political ideology with race won’t fly in the world of this work. Metzler’s careful story arc fills her audience with common judgments about the rich and poor and only does so to subvert them in the end, and Valdez tops this off with a matching subversion of race and class. In an idiom, there is a hell of a lot more to the characters of “Elemeno Pea” than meets the eye.
While there are jokes that don’t work in the play and some physicality that doesn’t feel as organic as it should, this production serves what it promises to in an interesting way. It’s honest, unflinching, and does its best to generously communicate with the audience. And that, my friends, is where the heart of theatre really ought to be.