It’s a tricky thing segregating one’s mind between critic, scholar and non-“working” audience member. In my case, the playgoer seems to win out more often than not. However, the critic and scholar eventually have the last word.
Returning to the Kitchen Dog Theater for its production of Octavio Solis’ Se Llama Cristina, the centerpiece of the 15th Annual New Works Festival, generated enthusiasm and anticipation. The production is part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere; the first production was at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, and another one is coming at The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena.
True to form, Tina Parker, KDT’s co-artistic director, made sure everyone in the house got a big old Texas welcome, spiced up with her special brand of spontaneity and humor.
Now, humor was not something anticipated in relationship with this piece about a man and a woman who wake up in a dingy apartment without memory of who they are or who the other is. The ominous presence of an abusive husband added to the dark overtones, which prevailed after having read the script prior to interviewing the playwright. But Parker set the tone, and a willing audience followed deep into play. I laughed in places I wouldn’t have imagined funny when I read it.
There is something dark about the funny, though. Here, Christina Vela’s precise direction and the actors’ sense of timing—Vanessa DeSilvio as Woman/Vespa/Vera, Israel López as Man/Mike/Miguel and Jeremy Schwartz as Abel/Abe—certainly did it right.
After reading the script, it seemed that this was Man’s story. However, in this production, it is clearly all about her. DeSilvio owned this character to the bone, or perhaps better said, to the womb. Her body (drugged, abused, down-beaten, and ultimately innocent and redeemed) articulated emotion and defiance with every fiber of her being. Intensely committed to her character, DeSilvio’s performance as Woman went the emotional distance. Her physical prowess satisfied the eye and the mind. She was engrossing every step of the way.
Israel López as Man/Mike/Miguel provided the necessary emotional and physical buffer between Woman and Abel. The poetic nature of many of his speech segments made it challenging to come across as real in the way Woman could. His delivery of short rebuttals in numerous situations provided much needed comic relief. But then again, this play is not about real, in the conventional sense. It takes place inside an apartment, and could therefore be called a parlor drama.
Claire Floyd DeVries’ simple yet effective set design allowed room for the pent-up, kinetic energy between Woman and Man, yet felt spacious enough and even airy during the road trips. The characters traveled in time and outside of the confines of this restricted space in a series of well-orchestrated flashbacks and, eventually, flash-forwards. In this respect, hats off go to sound designer John M. Flores and to lighting designer Aaron Johansen in their coordinated efforts for clearly demarcating the ruptures within the characters’ inner landscapes. A less competent team would have left the audience lost in the transitions, the least successful of which is the last one where the Girl (Samantha Ríos) appears. Unfortunately, several aspects did not work on opening night—the background music was too loud, and Ríos’ voice too weak to carry to the entire house. Seated in the back row, it was impossible to hear her.
This weakness in the production left the audience wondering who this Girl is and what exactly she is doing there. While Schwartz’s rendering of the tall and mean Texas telephone lineman oozed dangerous sexuality, his rendition of Abe (with some sort of Aussie or Brit/punk accent) was confusing. Thus, a play with wonderful moments floundered at the end, which was unfortunate because it is at the end where the play truly begins, whereby a different set of choices by Vera and Mike could yield an entirely different fate for the Girl.
As a scholar of Latino theater and performance, part of my work involves analyzing representational practices of Hispanics in contemporary theater and film. For this reason I cringed upon first reading Solis’s play (and thus my question to him: “why, oh why druggies,” to which he responded that they were not druggies). Be that as it may—audience, you be the judge of that—these characters are Mexican, poor, degraded, alcoholic, dysfunctional, abused and have minimal self-respect.
They describe themselves as losers. They are afraid of messing up their baby’s life and consider abandoning her (yes, they get a do-over). The redemption at the end of the play comes too little, too late to leave the audience with an impression of anything other than dysfunctionality and self-loathing. As a Latina friend of mine said after the show, “this is not the kind of story I want to hear.” Artistic freedom in creative work is essential; primordial, even. All kinds of stories need to be told, agreed. But, to this predominately Anglo audience, the story they walk away with is of two drunken Mexicans looking for identity and salvation. Perhaps a better question than “why, oh why druggies” would have been “why, oh why Mexicans?”
Then again, looking at the larger picture of Solis’ oeuvre, tortured self-discovery, dysfunctional Mexican family relationships and poetic language are recurring themes, as is a particular setting: El Paso and the border. Lydia, his latest highly acclaimed work, deals with a dysfunctional Mexican/El Paso family dealing with a 15-year-old quadriplegic. Bethlehem, again set in El Paso, is also a dark piece about dysfunctional relationships. Dreamlandia offers a surreal look at drugs and border culture on the Rio Grande. El Paso Blue, obviously set again in the city of Solis’ upbringing, concerns more dysfunctional family relationships, prison and revenge. Marfa Lights is also set in the unwelcoming West Texas desert. And in Santos and Santos, arguably his best-known play, Tomás is faced with the dilemma of his corrupt Mexican brothers who are in cahoots with a narcotics cartel, of his sense of family and of American justice.
So, in a very real sense, Se Llama Cristina follows a very clear line whereby the tension between dysfunctional, family relationships and West Texan/Mexican identity are clearly still in a dark, emotionally unsolved debate.
◊ Teresa Marrero is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino Theater at the University of North Texas.
◊ Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival also includes Tim Johnson's One:Man.Show, which begins performances on May 29; and six staged readings of new plays and PUP Fest, readings of plays by high school playwrights in conjunction with Junior Players, throughout the festival.