Dallas — She’s a lonely middle-aged widow, indulging in too many cookies and painting flowers with other artists at the botanical gardens. He’s a street tramp, filthy but darkly handsome, who offers to carry her shopping bags to her apartment. She tries to tip him as she urges him out the door, but he makes a desperate plea to stay, pointing out the window at members of his own gang of murdering thieves who want to kill him because he won money from them.
So begins Paper Flowers (Flores de Papel), Chilean playwright Égon Wolff’s 1970 masterwork, translated here by award-winning translator Margaret Peden. (Incidentally, it’s the first of two plays by Wolff, who died in November 2016, in Dallas this spring; Teatro Dallas will stage The Invaders in April.)
This encounter between a man and a woman reverberates not only with the Marxist theme of inevitable class conflict between the wealthy and the poor, but also the aesthetic idea that the true artist must destroy pre-conceived, academic ideas about what is art to free himself to create a new order.
That may sound like a lot of baggage to pack into the personas of just two actors, but in Kitchen Dog Theater’s sizzling production, Christie Vela’s softly alluring Eva and Christopher Carlos’s Machiavellian The Hake create a mesmerizing sexual tension that carries us into the ideas, but keeps the flesh-and-blood characters front and center. Vela and Carlos co-directed the swiftly moving show, which runs just under two hours, including two five-minute intermissions.
The Hake, according to a prominent program note with a hideous photo, “is a fish of the Chilean sea coast with a thin body and sharp teeth, that hunts the deep waters of the Pacific to feed its voracious appetite.” Like Brecht’s MacHeath, or Mack the Knife, The Hake knows how to conceal his weapons.
Eva has no real comprehension of who this man is she’s let into her dwelling. She pities him and decides he can stay until the bad guys go away, and offers him pate and roast beef, which overwhelms a man “used only to rice soup.” We take pity on The Hake, too, at least for a little while.
The Hake is initially so groveling and self-deprecating he hardly speaks a whole sentence. “Are you always so frugal with your words?” Eva asks. She scurries about, fixing food, becoming more comfortable with this clearly harmless object of her kind charity. She confesses her essential boredom of a life spent cooking meals and dressing and undressing, “doing useless things.” The play’s title comes from the crafts he makes from old newspapers—the old word reformatted and overwhelming everything in sight on Jeffrey Schmidt’s set of tastefully white modern furniture.
As the play progresses, we watch this sexual and societal dance intensify, thanks to two devilishly fine performances. What begins as an apparently accidental encounter takes on a surreal aspect as both Eva and The Hake are caught up in a storm of need, greed and Korey Kent’s fantastic costumes.
The outcome feels inevitable, but still must be seen to be believed.