Washougal Art & Music Festival

Seeing America in a hazy orange tone

Review: Profile Theatre's premiere of christopher oscar peña's "our orange sky" tells an immigrant story steeped in ambition, family discord, and pursuit of the American Dream.

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Patricia Alvitez and Anthony Green Caloca in the premiere of christopher oscar peña's "our orange sky." Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics
Patricia Alvitez and Anthony Green Caloca in the premiere of christopher oscar peña’s “our orange sky.” Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

Portland’s Profile Theater has focused its current two-year season on three playwrights—christopher oscar peña, Kristoffer Diaz, and Lauren Yee—offering not only full productions of their works but also opportunities for readings and discussion. For its third full-length production of peña’s work, Profile for the first time commissioned a new work:  our orange sky, which had its world premiere last weekend and concludes its short run on June 16 at Imago Theater. 

It’s an exciting project for Profile, the culmination of years of working and dreaming and collaborating.  Three members of its excellent cast (Matthew Sepeda, Jonathan Hernandez, and Skyler Verity) previously appeared in how to make an American Son, the first of the cycle of peña’s plays produced by Profile, and Verity appeared in the second Profile production, awe/struck. Producing new work benefits from the trust that the cast and designers have built over the season, perhaps especially in a play about family.

Continuing themes he explored in American Son, peña again turns for inspiration to his own life as the son of Honduran immigrant parents. Sepeda appears again as an older Orlando (a character to some degree based on peña himself), having evolved from his awkward teenage self into a successful artist who seems to have everything he dreamed would make him happy: notoriety, financial security, and a loving, long-term relationship. A return home to visit his parents and his two brothers, which he means to be triumphal, instead confronts him with his own undigested anger and dissatisfaction and doubt.

Director Evren Odcikin (who previously served in leadership roles at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) has his own connection to the outsider and immigrant themes that drive the play’s conflicts and action, having immigrated to the U.S. after growing up in Turkey. 

He observed recently that the American theater “tends to be interested in a very specific kind of immigrant story” which views immigrants as “people who need help.” The members of the immigrant family at the heart of our orange sky, as in peña’s other work, all have experiences of being misread in that way, and each has found ways to resist, though resistance doesn’t necessarily resolve the attendant inner conflicts. peña means to spotlight aspects of outsider experience that have not found their way into our conception of what is possible.

One way in which our cultural assumptions flatten out what is true is the concept of the American Dream itself—the idea that anyone can achieve success (generally defined as material success) in what is currently known as the United States. Many an immigrant has chased that same idea—as, indeed, have Orlando and his father, Mando (Anthony Green Caloca), a successful businessman. 

Skyler Verity and Matthew Sepeda in "our orange sky." Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics
David Remple and Jonathan Hernandez in “our orange sky.” Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

Of the three sons of Mando and Marisol (Patricia Alvitez), Orlando has most clearly adopted his father’s inclination to chase the American dream, having worked hard to achieve outward success. Yet the struggle for success has not healed his resentment at being overlooked or his fear of never being seen as good enough. The so-called American dream doesn’t deliver on its promise.

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A challenge of writing about one’s own struggles is whether one’s understanding comes with sufficient perspective. Certainly the American theater is full of examples—many quite celebrated–of stories of families who harm and fail to understand one another. I can’t say I’m always a fan of such plays; suffering needn’t be solved, and it can be illuminating, but it isn’t always so. In my own experience, suffering can be a good teacher, but the learning comes only with application of the lessons.

In this production, Orlando’s mother, Marisol, who troublingly remained an offstage presence in how to make an American Son (as though that can be accomplished without one’s mother), is given some space in our orange sky. But for all Patricia Alvitez’s lovely performance, peña doesn’t invest enough in helping us understand her; her extended monologue is rendered entirely in Spanish, which makes sense for her character but deprives those of us in the audience with poor or nonexistent Spanish skills (which includes some of us who are Latine’) of the opportunity to truly hear her perspective in the ways available to us.

I didn’t at all begrudge her that four minutes of time speaking on stage, even in Spanish, but am not satisfied with the explanation that her monologue somehow wasn’t written for those of us who don’t speak Spanish. I did not leave convinced that it was enough for us to be left to read only her well-conveyed emotional cues. 

Still, there is much to appreciate here in the work of these artists—including fine scenic design by Frank J. Oliva and lighting design by Blanca Forzán. And one can hope that the investment of Profile, these artists, and the Portland audiences who will see this show’s premiere production will bear fruit as our orange sky deepens its exploration of whether and how the American dream distracts and delivers. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Darleen Ortega has been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003 and is the first woman of color and the only Latina to serve in that capacity.  She has been writing about theater and films as an “opinionated judge” for many years out of pure love for both.

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