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A CurtainUp Review

The Mandala

The advance information about The Mandala, a premiere production of White Heron Inc, .described it as a psychological mystery about the suicide of a famous American abstract painter who had left behind a final masterpiece -- a mandala-type painting with a disturbing effect on all who view it. My infatuation with the Southwest and the work of Georgia O'Keefe coupled with this mystery's setting in the artist's home in New Mexico near a Navajo Indian reservation fed my urge to check out the play.

The play does deliver on one's expectation of seeing threads of Navajo art and myth woven into the dramatic arc, and having those threads used to unravel the secrets of the dead artist's twin sister Rhea Farmer (Martha Thimmesch), widow (Mimi Stuart) and teen aged son Randall (Chris Gunn) who's "old enough to be disillusioned and young enough to have hope". Even before the various Farmers take center stage, we meet the housekeeper known as Bitter Water Woman (Melanie Anastaia Brown) and her husband Ashin (Gil Silverbird) whose little girl (Laura Soto Bayomi) has not spoken since discovering the dead artist's body. They leave the stage for a ritual ceremony to give the child her voice again. The audience hears sounds of but never see that ceremony. The rituals of the off-stage Indians for whom past and present do not exist are inextricably connected to the tensions building among the people living in "real time" in the modern ranch house.

Playwright Waldemar Hansen who's enjoyed a long and fruitful career as a poet, short story writer, translator and lecturer in world history and culture brings a strong feeling for language an dialogue to The Mandala.. He also introduces a measure of humor and smart repartee via three secondary characters -- Charles Cianelli (John Griffith) a journalist who's there to cover the artist's suicide but also because he loves Rhea and wants to bathe her in some of his mother's "Italian sunshine"; Nigel Sykes (David Melville) the late artist's agent; an Alice Hurst (Vivian Landau), a rich art collector who wants to buy the mandala painting and buys art generally because "lovers don't last as long as art."

So far, so good. Unfortunately, as the mystery unravels so does the play. I won't go into details about why Rhea is so persistently sorrowful throughout, why Maggie (the widow) drinks and why young Randall is such a strange mix of defiant teenager and otherworldly spirit. Suffice it say that the tangled relationships between Rhea and her brother, Rhea and Randall and Maggie and Randall are not all that mysterious (I guessed the big secret before the break in the middle of the play). Worst of all, the major confrontations in the second half of the play proved so overdone that members of the audience several times laughed (a reaction the playwright surely did not intend).

Besides the inherent problems of the play itself, there's the production. The main players are okay but not first-rate. The best performance is that of the very attractive young Chris Gunn. He does a fine job of bringing Randall to life, even if the character as written is beyond belief. Alice Hurst also deserves credit for ringing all the humor possible out of the wealthy art collector. Director Cyndy Marion would have served everyone by tightening things up, and lopping at least fifteen minutes from the well over two-hour running time. Justine Shih Pearson's set is adequate if too obviously done on a limited budget. One would have wished she'd found a few dollars to at least throw some Southwestern style pillows for those plastic patio chairs found in every chain discount store. The set's only changes are the shifting colors of the sky as lit by Hilary T. Manners.

Written by Waldemar Hansen
Directed by Cyndy Marion
Featuring Laura Soto-Bayomi, Melanie Anastasia Brown, John Griffith, Chris Gunn, Vivien Landau, David Melville, Gil Silverbird, Mimi Stuart, Martha Thimmesch
Sets: Justine Shih Pearson
Costumes: Rob Bevenger
Lighting: Hilary T. Manners
Sound: Christopher A. Granger Hudson Guild (212/354-2220 2/12/98-3/08/98; opening 2/17/98
Reviewed 2/18/98 by Elyse Sommer

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