Saturday, September 20, 2008

Marisol, Vestige Group at the Off Center, September 18-28

Dark, dark, dark.

José Rivera’s 1993 piece Marisol, now in production by the Vestige Group at the Off Center, may draw on the Latin American tradition of “magical realism,” but his vision is that of a Puerto Rican author raised in the outer boroughs of New York City. Think of a melding of Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali. The dark clouds of Apocalypse are fulgent with irony and savage black humor.

The final image of this piece is that of angry humans throwing rocks into the sky, taking sides with the angels against God.

We enter the dark space of the Off Center to find an angel in one elevated corner, grasping an AK-47 in vigil against the heavens. Very early in the action, this same angel appears to our heroine Marisol Pérez to submit a verbal resignation from responsibilities as her guardian. More important work is in preparation: the angels have decided to rebel against a senescent, uncaring deity.

With that premise set, the angel disappears for most of the rest of the play. Marisol’s familiar miserable commute and living situation in New York City begin to go awry. Marisol hears and reads reports that she (or someone with her name) was clubbed to death at the subway station on 180th street in Washington Heights, at the same late hour she was being hassled by a homeless man brandishing a golf club.

The moon has disappeared, but radio journalists reassure us that the government is preparing an expedition to haul it back into place. What is that huge unfamiliar windowless building across from her work in mid-town? Who is this incensed man who breaks into the academic publishing office and demands to be paid for his work in the filming of Robert Deniro’s Taxi Driver?

June, her sympathetic woman co-worker, persuades Marisol to come to her apartment for refuge, but on their arrival June advises her that June’s unbalanced brother, Lenny, has been sexually obsessing over Marisol for two years. His meeting with her generates confusion, panic and threats.

When Marisol returns solo to her apartment to seek her things, the world has tilted entirely, with no landmarks recognizable and the sun traversing the sky from north to south. Laws of time, physics and geography have come apart.

Staging Marisol is a brave act for this young theatre company, in part because Rivera’s text fits too well the bleak, self-conscious self-dramatizing genre stereotypically beloved of struggling obscure theatre troupes. One imagines the impoverished author saying to himself, So, New York and the corrupt world do not recognize my talent or burning thirst for justice? They’d prefer for me to die poor, miserable and unseen in the wilds of the outer boroughs? Then I’ll show them the end of their own smug, self-centered world!

The scenes dangle together like cartoons on a clothesline, each devoted to yet another crazy or nasty or nutso entering Marisol’s life. The grace that lifts this text is Rivera’s imagination and sense of black humor. If there is no God, or if God has simply dropped the reins, the impossible becomes probable. A visiting angel can plant a sleeper with visions or with sexual ecstacy. Landscapes can transform. The disappeared or murdered can resurrect as if nothing happened. Marisol and Lenny can find themselves bound in an unholy and impossible immaculate conception, delivery and strangled stillbirth.

Humans can stone God and follow angels in rebellion. Perhaps in revolution.

Emily Pate as Marisol is the lovely, earnest presence through whom we experience the confusion of this world overturned. Andrew Varenhorst as the wayward Lenny has a lanky, distracted menace and later intensity that seize us, especially in the mad scenes of delivery and mourning. Crisp, assertive characters are drawn by Julie Winston-Thomas as June and Bastion Carboni as three different but psychically related nutsos. Dawnica Mathis the surly angel chills us but takes a declamatory approach to her lines, perhaps a deliberate indication of the angel’s role as ideologue of apocalypse.

My favorite performance was that of Jenny Keto. She appears only briefly as a young woman in a fur coat, bearing marks of a beating by credit-card enforcers, the gestapo lurking in that windowless building downtown. Keto is hysteria contained, totally focused, with economy of motion and beautifully, sparsely articulated emotion.

A cavil – directors Susie Gidseg and Jen Brown forfeit some of the opportunities of a “black box” staging and badly break the rhythm of the first act with the pauses and awkward manipulations of scene changes. A lot of labor and time is consumed in semi-darkness by actors and stagehands as they carry on and off Marisol’s bed (twice), the setting for the office, and the furniture for June’s apartment. These scenes could have been furnished more simply or just played in fixed areas of the stage. The opening scene in a #2 or #5 line subway car approaching East 180th Street is a techie’s delight – four upright poles on a platform, a rear projection of a subway car, and a recorded rush of subway noise. But it distracts us and makes it difficult to make out the mad babble that might be the prelude to an approaching murder.

Music before the opening was appropriate, lonely and ethereal.

Some very effective images anchored the scene – the rear projection, at the opening and the ending, of powerful images of angels, and the glowering presence of the armed Dawnica Mathis, scrupulously ignoring the entering audience. I speculate that she might have been even more compelling if she had been allowed to eye us from time to time in those pre-opening minutes, the way that stony Secret Service bodyguards watch for threats.

This stark production repays your time and attention. Don’t go expecting any easy laughs, and prepare to watch the world coming apart at the seams.

Review posted on the Austinist by SaraMarie
, September 22

Review by Barry Pineo in the Austin Chronicle, September 25

Review of the 1993 production by Frank Rich of the New York Times

Wikipedia on Jose Rivera, playwright

José Rivera at Internet Movie Database

José Rivera on writing and cultural diversity (1995)

An Actor's View of the Opening Night of Marisol (by Julie)

Vestige Group on MySpace


1) Playwright
José Rivera no longer lives in New York. He resides in Hollywood and he wrote the script for The Motorcycle Diaries, the 2004 film about a young Ché Guevara.

2) The Vestige Group gave me a complimentary ticket for the opening of this production and I accepted it, doubly burdening my conscience. Maybe taking a free ticket offers the appearance of providing special services in return for favors. (You can tell that I was a Federal employee for too long.) But more important, recognizing that theatre groups live on scraps and donations, I should have gone ahead and been generous for that Thursday "pay what you can" evening.

3) Continuing that thought, are YOU a member of the Austin Circle of Theatres? Have you made a donation through their website? I joined this week and did so, figuring that it was the closest thing to union dues for an unpaid on-line theatre journalist.

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