Playwright Laura Maria Censabella grew up in an inner city working class neighborhood and became the first person in her immigrant family to graduate from college; she went on to teach in the New York City public schools. Her experiences inspired her to examine what could happen when a bright high schooler from an immigrant background with almost no resources tries to find a solution to nearly insurmountable roadblocks to her hopes and dreams. Authored by Censabella and helmed by talented director Vicangelo Bulluck, PARADISE is the result of her creative conundrum. Inspired by the work of Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and the author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love,” PARADISE is light and deep at the same time.
Disgraced Ivy League university professor and researcher Dr. Guy Royston (Jeff Marlow) is forced to seek employment in an inner city Bronx high school. Who would have thought that a few death threats directed towards the rival for his true love’s affections could have resulted in such a painful downfall? Now Royston is a disgruntled and bitter high school teacher who hates everything and everyone around him. Enter Yasmeen al-Hamadi (Medalion Rahimi), a pretty Yemeni-American Moslem who is fascinated by everything that comes her way – and especially by concepts like love, seen so differently from the average American through the filter of her religious and cultural beliefs. Besides, there’s sure to be a conflict between her immigrant family’s cultural expectations and her own dreams.
Yasmeen is also a brilliant, creative student who discovers the world of neurobiology from her reluctant high school teacher, the very same Dr. Guy Royston. When the two begin to research first love as an adolescent neurobiological phenomenon – all the while coming from their very different perspectives about life – fur is sure to fly. And yet, for Yasmeen, the only way to pursue higher education is with a scholarship, which their research may just guarantee. For Royston, his path to redemption may overlap with the resurrection of his career – which also seems to focus on their joint research. Their collaboration will yield some intriguing questions about religion, culture, and scientific inquiry. Questions for which there may be no clear-cut answers.
Kudos to the two actors who carry the day, Medalion Rahimi and Jeff Marlow. A Moslem Iranian-American herself, Rahimi has a keen grasp of the problems inherent in blending two cultures and religions. As a frothy, excitable high schooler, Rahimi portrays adolescent effervescence to a tee. Marlow is her perfect foil, a mundane, angry middle-aged man whose dreams have fled. And yet sparks fly when the two come together. Even though their research is about love, there is never any romance between the two. Theirs is a mentor-mentee relationship complicated by multiple outside factors. Thus the focus is on the complexity of their interchanges, rather than a romantic Romeo and Juliet story.
Jeff Rowlings’ set and lighting and Jon Gottlieb’s sound are effective. Mylette Nora’s costumes are carefully considered – even if the audience never gets to see Rahimi’s hair, tucked as it is inside a hijab. Executive producers Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, and John Cappetta have a wonderfully complex tale to present. PARADISE proves to be entertaining, thought-provoking, and fun besides. This is a fascinating study of conflict and how it might be resolved – or not.
PARADISE runs through February 17, 2019, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025. Tickets are $35. For information and reservations, call 323-960-7724 or go online.