'Ni Mi Madre' review: A son's stinging tribute to his mother

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'Ni Mi Madre' review: A son's stinging tribute to his mother
Arturo Luís Soria plays an irresistibly charming, no-nonsense, twice-divorced Brazilian woman in “Ni Mi Madre,” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Manhattan. Soria wrote and stars in the forgiving, yet cleareyed solo show about parental damage done. Andrew Soria/Courtesy of The Rattlestick Playwrights Theater via The New York Times.

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Enter the playwright, bare-chested and barefoot in a white skirt that skims the floor. Then the skirt becomes an off-the-shoulder dress, and he becomes his mother, in an exuberant dance.

It’s a simple transformation into the character, and utterly theatrical. Suddenly there she is, regaling us: Bete, an irresistibly charming, no-nonsense, twice-divorced Brazilian immigrant who, it’s fair to guess, has never won an award for parent of the year.

There was, for example, the joke she used to play on her son Arturo when he was small. He would ring the doorbell, and she would answer as if he were a stranger: “I’m sorry, honey, but are you looking for your mother?” Then she would tell him to try next door.

Arturo Luís Soria’s autobiographical solo show “Ni Mi Madre,” directed by Danilo Gambini at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Manhattan, is remarkably unconventional. That’s not because it’s a queer narrative, though it is, or because its mostly English dialogue often slips briefly, without translation, into Portuguese and Spanish, though it does, and works just fine that way.

What marks this play as extraordinary in these knee-jerk antagonistic times is its ease with emotional contradiction and discomfort, its willingness to let filial affection persist despite a clear-eyed acknowledgment of parental damage done. (In the program, Soria thanks his mother “for not only living the life that I have bastardized on this stage, but for also enduring my retelling of it over and over again for the past decade and a half.”)

At 60 minutes, the production is not quite as tight as it could be; its shifts into Bete’s childhood, and other, ghostlier realms don’t always persuade. But Soria, who appeared on Broadway in “The Inheritance,” is a charismatic actor. And it is lovely to return to Rattlestick, where the indoor air moves in a soft, reassuring breeze. (Masks and proof of vaccination are required.)

“Ni Mi Madre,” which means “nor my mother,” is about legacy across cultures and generations: what Bete handed down to Arturo, intentionally or not, and what Bete’s mother, who Bete says never wanted to be a parent, handed down to her.

But it is also about a straight woman and the queer son she has in some ways always championed — even if, when he came out as bisexual, she in effect told him to pick a side — trying to navigate a world in which straight men hold so much of the power and make so many of the rules.

When Bete, an unapologetic believer in using corporal punishment on children, tells of the time she beat Arturo for something it turned out he hadn’t even done, she clings to her reasoning: that his behavior was going to embarrass her in front of her fiance.

“I had three kids, and I was about to marry my third husband,” she says. “What was this man going to think about me?”

In keeping with Bete’s philosophy that walls should be the color of “suggestive foods,” “Ni Mi Madre” has a papaya-orange set (by Stephanie Osin Cohen). Its black-and-white patterned floor is in homage to the sidewalk in Ipanema, where she grew up, and the painting upstage center is of the mother goddess Iemanjá.

Against this vivid backdrop, and beneath Krista Smith’s saturated lighting, Bete’s appearance is wisely almost unembellished: hair loose, little makeup, minimal jewelry (costume design is by Haydee Zelideth).

Soria gives a performance of matching restraint, which is vital to safeguarding Bete’s humanity. As funny and over the top as she is, she never slips into caricature. And so we can feel for both her and her son.

“Ni Mi Madre” is an aching heart wrapped in laughter and a long white dress — an offering of understanding and forgiveness, presented on the altar of bruised inheritance.

'Ni Mi Madre'

Through Sept. 19, in person and livestreamed, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, New York City; 212-627-2556, rattlestick.org. Running time: 1 hour.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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