Bottom of Your Shoe Theatre Collective

at the Curious Theatre Branch

Columbus bashing has been fashionable for so long that this year, the 500th anniversary of his having stumbled upon the Caribbean, it’s become almost passe. But in Querencia (meaning “longing” in Spanish, but pronounced by the Bottom of Your Shoe troupe more like carencia, meaning “lack”), ingenuity and creativity make the Columbus story a blast to watch. Surreal, magical, surprisingly well researched, and actually funny, Querencia gives a little history lesson about the origins of the Americas as we’ve come to know them and explores some questions about moral responsibility.

The group goes a bit far in its indictment of Columbus and his legacy–they even blame AIDS on the guy–but overall the politics aren’t so overwhelming or far-reaching as to detract from the story. Indeed, the politics at the core of the piece are garden-variety liberal, so they’re not taxing.

The Bottom of Your Shoe group, which collectively wrote and directed Querencia, takes a curious approach to Columbus’s tale. Five spirits trapped in a kind of purgatory find that the only way out is to relive Columbus’s journeys. The spirits are skeletal, dark, and temperamental. Why Columbus has been chosen as the path to a more pleasant afterlife isn’t convincingly explained (it is, I guess, the writers’ caprice), but soon it doesn’t matter.

Working on a flexible, eerie set that can become in a moment the majestic Spanish courts, the depths of hell, the mercurial ocean, or the islands on which Columbus hoped to find gold, the five take turns playing Columbus. They proceed chronologically through his journeys, his hopes and fears, and all of his blunders.

Amazingly, considering that each of the five actors takes a different approach to playing Columbus, his character eventually comes across as coherent, human, and even a bit sympathetic. The Bottom of Your Shoe cast doesn’t spare us any of his savagery or stupidity, but his fallibility as a man and our connection to him as equally fallible humans make this program a riveting experience.

Kalila Holt, the first to play Columbus, gives him a weird combination of innocence and ambition. He comes off as scared, clumsy, and almost childlike. But Marianne L. Fieber, who plays the second Columbus, is funny and frightening. Her portrayal of the impetuous conqueror is like a warning about dictators to come, from Napoleon to Pol Pot. Dan Ostling, James Cornolo, and Lisa Eckelkamp are less distinctive but still charming.

The ending, with its ritual and penance, may be too Catholic–or just plain too much–for some people. The pat resolution is disappointing, but luckily it doesn’t detract much from our enjoyment of the show.