Presented by Moonbox Productions as part of the Boston New Works Festival 2023
ONCE UPON A CARNIVAL is written by Angele Maraj & Brianna Pierre
Directed by Shania Pahuja
Music Directed by Harrison Acosta
2nd Annual Boston New Works Festival
June 22 – June 26, 2023
The Boston Center For The Arts
The Plaza Theatre
527 Tremont Street
Note: The reviewer knows one of the writers of the production.
Review by Gillian Daniels
BOSTON, MASS – A show that is half done is a show that is difficult to review, but though Once Upon a Carnival is still in its workshopping stage, it’s complete in its sense of joy and cultural complexity. Bhavan (played with churlish realism and charming eagerness by Marshall Romano) is our American, teenage hero. He’s a boy brought to his mother’s home country of Trinidad and then descended upon by relatives (and family friends who might as well be relatives) in a chaotic welcome that, to a young man used to the standoffish city of New York, is completely over-whelming.
The reading I attended for his story was so much more than a reading: it had choreography, costumes, fully orchestrated songs (arranged by Harrison Acosta), and the pathos of a polished musical. I would call Once Upon a Carnival “the bones” of a show, but I’m fairly sure this skeleton has a full circulatory system and a desire to dance the night away. The production needs only time and care to grow from a lively soiree to the carnival promised in its title.
Moonbox Productions took on the unwieldy task of a weekend long festival featuring three musicals and four original plays. The opportunity for new writers, such as Angele Maraj and Brianna Pierre, and directors, like Shania Pahuja, to strut their stuff is invaluable. I hope Moonbox Productions’ showcase continues for a third year.
Still, the set-up of the festival is a wobbly one. If Moonbox wants to continue to give a platform for new talent, it needs to do its due diligence. Once Upon a Carnival’s talkback after the show was not well advertised and much of the audience left before it could give comments and fulfill the purpose of what a play workshop is supposed to be—a workshop. The story of the show itself is about the role of community and, while I appreciate Moonbox’s ambition, it needs to be a community and give each of its shows the attention they deserve.
In Once Upon a Carnival, the audience learns about Trinidad and its complicated heritage along with Bhavan. Trinidad is not an idealized paradise but, in his words, a too small, too hot country where everyone is in each other’s business. The rush of family around him causes Bhavan—nicknamed “Yankee” both by the Baptiste and Sookdeo families with whom he is now a part of—to feel suffocated.
His mother, the formidable Radhika (Sage Gunning), has returned home after the death of her husband, Bhavan’s father, but has dropped their child in a world where he knows little. This physical move and its lack of explanation has, of course, created a rift between mother and son.
Lucky for Bhavan, Jada (Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle) is a fellow teenager who can help him better acclimate to his Trinidadian culture and prepare for the upcoming carnival. She and her aunt, the likely mystical but definitely eccentric Tantie Lynn (Imani Powell in an exquisite performance), quiz him on traditions and even vocabulary words.
Like Bhavan, who is now immersed in a new world, Jada and Tantie also occupy a liminal space. Jada is more interested in studying than socializing, making her an introverted oddball in a family of extroverts. Tantie, though older and wiser, appears to have some form of dementia. Her rumored powers as a witch provide a sense of magical realism to the show in conjunction with Picton (Brandon Lee), a very white Englishman looking to buy up the island and continue its colonialist past into the present.
I found Once Upon a Carnival, in its nascent stage, to be delightful. It’s crammed with characters who, in the production’s next iteration and second act, look like they will receive more definition. Even “background’ characters appear to have their importance to the story, from the Troubadour (Julius P. Williams III) who serves as narrator and sells doubles for two dollars at the airport to characters nebulously related to Bhavan like taxi driver Sonny-Boy (Joseph Cardozo) and Tara (Kira Gandolfo).
This show’s strength is in its characters and I’m excited to see how they develop further. Like any party, what makes it joyful are the people who show up. I hope I can attend a celebration again with them very soon.