“We rose up out of the mud, you and me, Em. And after they created us, they created stars and swamps, the ‘gators and the rain…And we’ve been wrestling them ever since.”
As the characters tussle and yawp in the muddy waters of a cement cistern, Hilary Bettis’s play Alligator wants to get down in the muck of human relationships. But rather than digging deep and unearthing meaning, we leave with only a shallow understanding of the characters before us.
Though the play begins with the tale of orphaned twins, Ty (Dakota Granados) and Emerald (Lindsay Rico), who wrestle alligators for entertainment in the Everglades, it embraces other teens in their local circle—the demure Diane (Lexi Lapp) and earnest Merick (Samuel H. Levine) who are devoted to each other without knowing much about the world and Danny (Julian Elijah Martinez), the high school football star, who is now playing Division 1 ball at college. This small town gets an unexpected visitor in the form of Lucy (Talene Monahon)—another teen who mysteriously and immediately pledges her devotion to Emerald.
But little is as it seems. Ty acts macho and brave. Danny is all dick-swinging braggadocio. Emerald drowns herself in whiskey and clings to Ty for strength. Diana cloaks herself in overprotective parents and frightens at every thunder clap. But the characters are performing these identities for themselves and for each other and hiding their true feelings and desires.
As much as peeling back the public masks worn by teens could be an interesting endeavor, here it prevents us from getting invested in the characters. All this falsity aggregates in facile archetypes. We only get brief glimpses of what lies thereunder. The strife, confusion, and sadness in these characters gets played out with broadly-drawn exaggeration.
There are only a few moments of piercing emotional clarity. Danny and Ty in their ultimate confrontation give meaning to the many emotional howls in the play when all their subterfuge is pushed aside. They give strong performances and it left me wanting more from these actors. Similarly, when Bobby Moreno emerges as a poetic, pontificating alligator finally something feels real on the stage. As contradictory as that sounds, Moreno is magnetic and brings force and directness to the stage. There is nothing halfway about his character or his delivery. The play commands our attention when he’s on stage.
The talking alligator is one aspect of surreal mysticism Bettis employs on top of the moody swamp setting. But it’s a wobbly overlay on the play. A tentativeness in this production leaves us wondering what characters and interactions we are supposed to experience as otherworldly.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s set centers around the basin of water surrounded by a layer of dirt. Although the pool of water is where the characters go to literally and figuratively wrestle, the setting frequently changes. Characters are often sitting or driving in cars. The staging only occasionally clues us in to where we are. Director Elena Araoz frequently places the actors in the same spot on the rim of the basin even if the location has changed. This leads to confusion and, worse, a flat sameness. We should be drawn more and more into this unusual world, but the production lacks variation.
One of the most troubling aspects of the play is the perplexing character of Lucy. She becomes the willing repository for the fantasies of several characters. This mostly manifests as her being a sexual prop. Watching a 16-year-old character negotiate her place in the world through sex acts may be brutally honest but the play’s perspective on this remains opaque. We get little insight into her mind. Monahon’s dead-eyed delivery of each of these transactions offers weak guidance.
Bettis is playing with discomfort and ambiguity and there’s certainly something intriguing to her dark, youth-centric world. But pointed emotional epiphanies are lacking.