Dallas — The day after the opening of Cara Mía Theatre Company’s production of Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera’s Rerefences to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot (2000), Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman walked away with three of Oscar’s highest honors: Best Screenplay, Best Picture and Best Director. What do Rivera and González Iñárritu share in common besides their Latino identities in the much-commented-on whiteness of Hollywood?
In 2005 Rivera was the first Puerto Rican to be nominated by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay for the landmark film The Motorcyle Diaries (based on Argentinean Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s autobiographic travels and writings). González Iñárritu is the second Latin-American to win the accolade of Best Director in a row (Alfonso Cuarón won in 2014 for Gravity; and the Spaniard Pedro Almodóvar first won the honor in 2002 with Talk to Her). Like González Iñárritu’s film, Rivera’s play packs the punch as only an honest look at people injected with lunacy can. And, while Birdman offers a metatheatrical content (a film with self-referential theatrical content), References is drenched in Shakespearean intertextuality—the character of the Moon is a case in point. The play might as well had been titled References to the Bard…
In order to bring the audience right into the emotional backyard, the Latino Cultural Center stage is transformed into an intimate 67-seat house (plus 10 additional chairs if necessary). From this up-close and intimate staging, the actors portraying human characters (there is also a cat and a coyote) are stripped bare of makeup and all artifice.
There are three aspects that stand out about this production: the wonderful pleasure of listening to Rivera’s poetic language, spoken in so rich an English that the words take on the corpulent flavor of a deep Shakespearean Burgundy; secondly, the way in which Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso portrays Gabriela with a salaciously intelligent wit; and thirdly the promising directorial talent of Ruben Carrazana. In his professional directing debut, Carrazana makes a number of appropriate choices, from the casting to the set, sound, properties and costume design; it is evident that this production has birthed an artistic vision.
Ivan Jasso in the dual role of the Moon (yes, the Bard got the Moon’s sex wrong, it is male!) and Benito, Gabriela’s army bootstrap husband high on all hell to masculinity and patriotism, is not far behind. As the violin-playing Moon, Jasso delivers a sweetness that Benito lacks (it took me a moment to realize they were one and the same actor). As Gabriela’s lifer U.S. Army husband, Benito comes home from the field and all he wants is no-frills sex. She, on the other hand, has been having dreams, bad dreams. The verbal waterfall of her anxiety about who she is becoming (a woman dissatisfied with being an Army wife, someone who wants to learn, to think, to be imagine a richer life) hits Benito like an automatic rifle’s round of betrayals.
Further separating the couple, the after effects of the Gulf War haunt his restless psyche where Gabriela has no access. Think Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but more relevant to the times, not boozy and quite a bit more lyrical. The depth of Benito’s character deserves digging deeper. Marcus Piñón as Martín, a young neighbor for whom Gabriela signals a possible coming of age sexual awakening, adds lightheartedness to the plot. The character is not deeply developed in the script, therefore Martín remains a secondary planet orbiting around his juvenile object of desire.
In a parallel love story of the feline kind, Gabriela’s cat, played by newcomer Elizabeth Berkman, and a wild coyote (Seun Soyemi, previously seen in Cara Mía’s Zoot Suit) intertwine a secondary conflict based on disparate desires and a similar misreading of each other’s sexual seduction vs. love theme. While both actors come across believably with their personification, their costumes lack subtlety.
The set effectively suggests numerous interior and exterior spaces; however, the function of the door on stage left is questionable. It was not evident why Benito and Gabriela sometimes exit through the door and other times they simply walk around it, ignoring it. The logic of these actions escaped me. In a setting this close to the action, every move counts.
Other than these small details, Cara Mía’s production of this verbally and psychologically rich play deserves a second look. As always, my ears are perked to the audience’s musings after the show. Wandering in the lobby and the lady’s room, without exception the comments fell in the category of “that was a great show.” Also notable was the warm support that this production received on opening night from a predominately Anglo audience. Reserve early, the maximum seating capacity is 79.
» Teresa Marrero is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Theater in the department of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of North Texas, Denton.