Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Filling the Time: Conversation, Chocolate, and Contemplation in Costa Rica

Between the cacao trees in Costa Rica

Tonight through Sunday,  Željko Ivanek and Sarah Steele will give their final performances as Sterling (a lapsed American lawyer and expat in rural Costa Rica) and Becky (his suburban niece) in Slowgirl.  Though the show is sold out, if you arrive at the new Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center (perched on the roof of the long-established Vivian Beaumont Theater) just before 6pm and are first or second in line for the elevator, you can ride upstairs with the other early-goers and wait (in the same line formation, this time on benches in the narrow lobby area between the elevators and will-call booth) until just before seven, when the theater decides to unload the handful of tickets previously purchased but never claimed.

This works.  I did it twice last week.  (It worked twice but the first time, due to a cell-phone related snafu unrelated to the content of this post, I had to give up my place in line at the last minute.)  And the experience of watching this atmospheric play is worth the unstructured hour of waiting time--and the twenty-dollar ticket price--ten-fold.

The evolving familial relationship between chatty Becky and taciturn Sterling (whom Becky memorably and characteristically loudly refers to as "Ster-fry") is compelling.  But, for me at least, the power of this jungle story is less in the plot than in the very experience of watching it.

Slowgirl, the first production to be staged by the Lincoln Center Theater at this location, is charming, honest, modest, and relevant.  When you're there an hour early, you see the actors come in.  They are already noticeably in sync--one arrives within seconds of the other, who holds the elevator door; they smile comfortably at each other and disappear.  An actor from Mad Men is in the audience and he looks more handsome, more interesting than he does on TV.  A rooftop blogger sits on the bench next to you, also waiting for a last-minute ticket, contemplating the the wooden-slatted terrace, miniature lawns, and old-school standing viewfinders (like the ones atop the Empire State Building) outside.  Inside the 112-seat theater, the action starts as casually as is expected in the best Off-Broadway plays.  The chirping and chirring on the stage replaces that in the audience and your attention turns to the scene in front of you.  The actors (two New Yorkers in an elevator an hour ago) are now transformed--he looks older, she looks younger.  Ivanek as Sterling, looking very much like a poet friend of mine who once lived in Guatemala and the inspiration for one of my own poems, paces between the wooden beams underneath the tin roof and drops into the hammock with a heavy hardcover book.  Anyone who knows the Central American landscape will recognize Sterling as part of it.  He is solitary, confident, responsive to the environment around him.

"Don't you get bored?" Becky asks, incredulous from the moment of her arrival.

"Why is building a life here not as good as building a life in the States?" Sterling wonders. "It doesn’t matter where you are. Either way, you just have all this time to fill."  Watching this incredible piece of New York theater, surrounded by so many urban resources and characters, I was reminded of the joys associated with building a life "here."  On the other hand, the iguanas on the roof and the parrots in the kitchen at Sterling's house (the animals are never seen on stage but mentioned and so precisely imagined) reminded me of all the pleasures of a life "there."  As you watch this drama take shape and drive toward its theatrical crisis, try to keep Sterling's question in mind.  This is not a story of escape.  It is a story about responding to the world around you.

Should you choose to follow Sterling to Costa Rica, considering doing so on the Ecole Chocolat Master Chocolate program in March of 2013, a good opportunity to conduct cacao-related fieldwork with chocolate-maker Steve DeVries if you missed him in Mexico last year.  Before, during, or instead of the chocolate tour, you might spend a few days doing yoga at Pranamar on the beach, a B & B run by Susan Money, one of the most centered hotel owners I've ever met and another fixture of the landscape.


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