A ‘Fiesta’ on a rainbow platter

Triangle's solo play 'American Fiesta' sets the table for a conversation about gay marriage

It’s not a Christmas show, but it’s probably got the brightest holiday wrapping in town. “American Fiesta,” Steven Tomlinson’s one-man play at Triangle Productions, is about Fiesta ware, that groovy mix-and-match dinnerware that brightened the Great Depression and several decades after with its rainbow of colors designed to spread decorative sunshine across America’s tables.

Cash and carry: the search for satisfaction. Triangle Productions.

Cash and carry: the search for satisfaction. Triangle Productions.

I don’t say that ironically or the least bit snarkily. I quite like Fiesta, although I’ve never owned a piece. And I like that the company that continues to make Fiesta, the Homer Laughlin China Co. of Newell, West Virginia, created it as a beautiful cheap product for the masses, most of whom, in Fiesta’s beginning years at least, were in desperate need of good cheap products, because cheap was all they could afford.

Of course, Fiesta ware isn’t really what “American Fiesta” is about, although it sort of is. The lead character, the storyteller, one of a large handful of characters major and minor that actor Gary Wayne Cash ably brings to life, collects the stuff in what is both a minor obsession and a major metaphor. How does one collect, and why? What does one value, the having or the getting? Is one captivated or obsessed? Is one adding to a full life, or trying desperately to fill a void? Does one seek perfection, or the nicks and cracks and little stories of age and experience? Does the collector control the collection, or does the collection control the collector?

All pertinent questions in the game of life. But although they surround and bring focus to “American Fiesta,” they’re not ultimately what the play’s about. It is, rather, the story of an approaching-middle-aged man not unlike playwright Tomlinson (who starred in the original production) who is living with his male partner in Austin, Texas, and still emotionally tied to his parents in small-town Oklahoma, and who wants to marry his partner, but, this being 2004 and the United States, will have to go to Canada to do so. And he would love for his parents to go there, too, but considering that they believe his homosexuality to be something of a noxious illness contracted from breathing in the fumes of the bubbling brimstone at the gates of Hell (though they love him, yes they do), that ain’t a-gonna happen.

No, “American Fiesta” is bittersweet: love and marriage will triumph, but not over all obstacles. And if the play teaches anything (although lessons aren’t really what the theater is about), it might be this: if you do what you can and what you must, the rest of the world might learn to accommodate you. American attitudes toward gay marriage are shifting faster than the speed of summer lightning, and in a way this play, set just nine years ago, already feels a little like a period piece. Not quite, of course, because the worm hasn’t entirely turned: in many places, attitudes are ahead of the law; in others, the law will outpace attitudes. And at deeper levels – how parents and children learn to get along; how each of us reconciles our private life with the private lives of other people close to us, and with public attitudes and demands – this story is unlikely to go out of date no matter what happens in the gay marriage debate.

“American Fiesta” clocks in at about an hour and a half, with no intermission, which is a long time for a solo performer to hold the stage. Cash (aided by some subtle but effective lighting effects designed by Jeffrey Woods) manages it very well, juggling tour de force character switches with a calm and intimate and wryly humorous storytelling center. The trick is to make all of the characters, even the gruff and bigoted ones, seem essentially likable, and Cash does that beautifully. There are rough edges. The quick shifts demand some very sharp performance changes, and although Cash almost always makes it crystal clear just who’s speaking in any given moment, on rare occasion things get a little muddy. And playwright Tomlinson has stuffed an awful lot onto the table, very likely too much, like a fruit cake with just one more cup of candied pineapple tossed in for good measure. “American Fiesta” has a political edge – it talks about the intentional pushing of opinions to the extremes, creating an angry nation that would rather battle to an exhausted standstill than collaborate or compromise in any way – and while there’s a lot of truth in that, it sometimes seems to intrude on what’s essentially a personal tale. But then, that’s the point, too: it IS a personal tale, and politics is part of it. If the play rambles, storytelling often tends to ramble: this play doesn’t really care about the Aristotelian unities.

Cash ranges around the little auditorium in The Sanctuary, Triangle’s space on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, sometimes speaking from a back aisle and sometimes from the floor in front of the front row and often while rearranging the Fiesta ware on director and set designer Don Horn’s smartly festooned stage, which by the end of the performance will include a full set of nesting bowls all lined up in colorful order. Wandering into the audience is a risky ploy that often falls flat, but Cash makes it work naturally and almost inevitably, partly because his gentle approach to the story creates a bond of intimacy with the audience almost from the beginning. As he flicks through the voices and attitudes of the collector and such supporting characters as his mother and father and partner and fellow collectors and farm folks selling off their old stuff, he makes us think he’s simply telling the truth of his life, as he sees it.

Horn’s set is dominated by display shelves and a large Fiesta collection donated by longtime Triangle supporter Joan Hayward, whose idea this production was, before she died. The donated Fiesta pieces will be sold during the show’s run as a way to raise money for Triangle, and as Hayward’s final contribution to the company. The Oregonian’s been covering that story like a harvest table at a Martha Stewart photo shoot. (See here, and here, and here.)

There are a million ways an actor could take this script, and no two, I suspect, would ever play it alike. That’s because it’s such a personal play – not, finally, archetypal at all, but intensely individual – and every actor is going to have to put a great deal of himself into it. On Saturday night, Tomlinson was in attendance, having traveled to Portland from Austin, and after the show, he, Cash, and Horn chatted with the visibly and audibly appreciative audience. Horn talked about the long journey to producing the play, and Cash about his nervousness of performing in front of the playwright, and Tomlinson about how he thought Cash had turned “American Fiesta” into his own play, reflecting his own experiences and outlook on life.

All in all, it was a sweet evening. And I don’t mean that ironically or the least bit snarkily, either.

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“American Fiesta” continues through December 22. Ticket information is here.

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