In the backyard of a modest house with a thriving garden, a woman in a brimmed hat festooned with streamers bends over the flowers, tending to them silently. Her face a mask, she pays no attention to the pair of teenage sweethearts in the midst of a private talk.
“That’s my grandma,” says Cindy, whose yard this is.
“I thought your grandma was dead,” Kaitlyn says.
She is, Cindy confirms: buried in Mexico and everything. But after her grandmother had a fight with her cousin, who was interred in a neighboring grave, “she left there, came here.” Now she hangs out in the garden, looking after the greenery.
“This is why I don’t invite you over,” Cindy says, unsurprised by her girlfriend’s confusion; Kaitlyn is white, after all. “I can’t explain all this stuff all the time.”
The creators of “Quince,” the shimmery immersive production that inaugurates the Bushwick Starr’s new theater in a former dairy plant in Brooklyn, have the opposite impulse. Written by Camilo Quiroz-Vázquez and directed by Ellpetha Tsivicos, this too-educative play — presented with their company, One Whale’s Tale — wants to invite all of us into its story of Cindy and her impending quinceañera, a coming-of-age celebration to mark her 15th birthday. To achieve that, it is more than willing to explicate Mexican and Mexican American culture for its audience every step of the way.
To be fair, white American theatergoers have come to expect that kind of coddling, and no one wants to parade the complexity of their heritage in front of people who don’t understand it. But I’m with Cindy on this. Constant footnoting is exhausting — a drag on the festivities and also on the drama. Of which, in her life, she has plenty.
Raised by her strict single mother, Maria (Brenda Flores), in a family so devoutly Roman Catholic that the parish priest is a regular presence in their home, Cindy (Sara Gutierrez) is squeamish about more than just explaining her grandmother’s ghost. She’s also embarrassed by her family’s lack of money, uncomfortable with her queerness and terrified of how Maria would react if she found out about it.
Performed mostly in English, partly in Spanish, “Quince” traces Cindy’s journey toward self-acceptance — and Maria’s, too. Overworked and short on patience, Maria is carrying her own unwarranted shame that needs exorcising: the spiritual damage of having been branded sinful when she was 15 and pregnant with Cindy, half a lifetime ago.
Salomon (José Pérez), Maria’s anxious brother, gives Cindy the gift of gentle allyship when she comes out to him, while the affable Father Joaquin (a charming Quiroz-Vázquez) tries to facilitate reconciliation all around. (When, over a beer in the kitchen with Salomon, this seemingly decent priest nearly violates the sanctity of the confessional by divulging what Cindy said to him there, his recklessness goes mystifyingly unremarked.)
During the pandemic-stricken, pre-vaccine summer of 2020, when there was almost no live theater in New York, an earlier, much shorter version of “Quince” had a handful of open-air performances at the People’s Garden in Brooklyn. In the current incarnation, a Mexican food cart sits outside the theater preshow, and ticket holders are welcome to buy meals that they can eat during the performance. Drinks are for sale inside, where the audience sits at tables in a tinsel-curtained space decorated for Cindy’s celebration. (Scenic design is by Tanya Orellana; Tsivicos is credited as the creative director.)
With a stage at one end of the long room for the terrific band (Marilyn Castillo, Andrés Fonseca, Juan Ospina and Sebastian Angel), an aisle down the center that lets the actors move among the audience and three mini-sets scattered throughout, it is a good-looking production, beguilingly lit by Mextly Couzin, with costumes by Scarlet Moreno.
But the show feels inorganic and at odds with itself, straining toward mystical expression and physical abandon yet tethered to an earthbound script that meanders for too long before arriving at Cindy’s party. Occasionally it has the tone of an after-school special — albeit one that breaks into cumbia music and includes, toward the end, a Selena impersonator (Tsivicos). This play doesn’t dance nearly as much as it wants to, and its ghosts and apparitions (in beautiful masks by Quiroz-Vázquez, Zoë Batson and Courtney Escoto) fit awkwardly alongside the sometimes groan-worthy comedy.
The romance between Cindy and Kaitlyn (Saige Larmer) is sweet; the healing that Maria eventually finds is a benevolence. But the show feels dumbed down, its magic dulled and focus diluted by a determination to be understood at an elementary level by people from the broader culture — even the ones who gravitate toward new work in industrial spaces in Bushwick.
Trusting the audience is a risky undertaking. But we’re more curious, and more comfortable with artful ambiguity, than “Quince” gives us credit for.
Through June 26 at the Bushwick Starr, Brooklyn; thebushwickstarr.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.