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Hooked: ‘Fish Men’ at INTAR Theatre

February 22nd, 2017 Comments off

By Ryan Leeds

Jose Joaquin Perez in 'Fish Men.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Jose Joaquin Perez in ‘Fish Men.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Near the end of playwright Cándido Tirado’s well-crafted play Fish Men, one of his characters looks offstage, reflecting on the events that have just occurred. “People are stories,” says Ninety-Two. (Ed Setrakian) “You see them walking down the street, but you’d never know what events have affected their lives.” Indeed, every person in this rich character study is woven together by a painful tapestry of his or her individual pasts, but the results make for a thoughtful and compelling night of theater.

Fish Men, produced by the INTAR Theatre, takes place in New York’s Washington Square park where Cash (Shawn Randall), an over-confident chess hustler is working the cemented outdoor chess boards with John (Gardiner Comfort), his religious, but not terribly bright Russian sidekick. The pair hold court while Jerome (David Anzuelo), an outspoken Native American and passive chess player, and “Ninety-Two” (whose real name we later learn is Adam Kirchbaum) observe the pair and offer disapproving remarks on the way they take advantage of less experienced players.

Gardiner Comfort, Jose Joaquin Perez, Ed Setrakian, and Shawn Randall in 'Fish Men.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Gardiner Comfort, Jose Joaquin Perez, Ed Setrakian, and Shawn Randall in ‘Fish Men.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Cash isn’t particularly fond of being labeled a hustler, preferring instead to don the moniker “Chess professor.” Cash claims “it’s easier to get a doctorate than it is to become a chess grandmaster” and only “plays for money to make things interesting.” He is certainly not wrong on that account. The events become interesting and at times, grave, when a seemingly nerdy player, Rey (Jose Joaquin Perez) walks into their path and plays the game. Once a hustler himself, Rey is there to exact revenge on the pair. A day earlier, Cash and John took his Uncle Bernie for a ride and Rey is hell-bent on getting even.

The burden of revenge is heavy and carried throughout the drama. As layers are peeled, we are made aware of vulnerabilities and resentments that lie under the surface of Tirado’s men.

Rey and Ninety-Two find common ground in being survivors of genocide. For Ninety-Two, it was the Holocaust. Rey, on the other hand, is a survivor of the “forgotten” Guatemalan civil war, which saw the murder of thousands of Mayan people at the hands of government officials. The survivor’s club, as Ninety-Two points out is “Not the best club to be a member of. No application process. Someone else must make you a member against your will.” Still, the elder gentleman has discovered coping mechanisms. The younger Rey is still blood red with anger. Jerome is also a survivor. As a Native American, he laments our country’s history of 18 million exterminations of his ancestors and the differences that divide us.

Shawn Randall and Ed Setrakian in 'Fish Men.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Shawn Randall and Ed Setrakian in ‘Fish Men.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Tirado could easily have turned this into another drama that assuages the guilt of liberal America by teaching and preaching to the choir, but he wisely masks it with natural and often funny dialogue. There is also intensity, particularly in Act II, which moves the story forward like a slick cat and mouse game.

Director Lou Moreno has given his actors plenty of leeway to explore their characters, but still keeps the stakes high and the action laser focused. Raul Abrego’s set, an intimate park re-creation, works perfectly in the cozy theater, as does lighting designer Christopher Cancel-Pomales effective saturations.

At times, the delivery of dialogue could be tighter and occasionally, some lines are difficult to hear. It’s safe to assume however that this accomplished cast will settle into the play as the run progresses. And the title? I must confess that I recoiled when I first read it. Given the prevalent references throughout, however, it makes perfect sense. Tirado’s work, which premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theater (in collaboration with Teatro Vista), makes a most welcome and moving splash Off-Broadway.

Fish Men
INTAR Theatre
500 W. 52nd Street, 4th floor
Through March 18

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

Review: Se Llama Cristina at INTAR

April 14th, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

(l to r) David Anzuelo, Gerardo Rodriguez, and Carmen Zilles in "Se Llama Christina." (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) David Anzuelo, Gerardo Rodriguez, and Carmen Zilles in “Se Llama Christina.” (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

INTAR, the funky Hell’s Kitchen theater devoted to plays by Latino writers, is the perfect setting for Octavio Solis’s Se Llama Cristina, with its appropriately dark and grungy Sam Shepard-like world. Solis, a well-known San Francisco playwright and director, is making his Off Broadway debut with this fever dream of a play, which premiered at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre.

Despite its title, meaning “Her Name is Cristina,” the play—except for smatterings of Spanish—is in English. It opens with two characters in their early 30s, a Man (Gerardo Rodriguez) and a Woman (Carmen Zilles), both of Mexican descent; they’ve both shot up and he still has the needle in his arm. The room they’re in (designed by Raul Abrego) combines expressionist distortions (chairs and tables with uneven legs, a door and window set into the walls at cockeyed angles) and shabby naturalism, with rancid-looking, water-stained walls. The TV sits partly buried in a hole cut through the planked wooden floor, as does a nearby baby crib. Even when the locale—with scenes in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California—moves around, the room remains the same.

Gerardo Rodriguez and Carmen Zilles in "Se Llama Christina." (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Gerardo Rodriguez and Carmen Zilles in “Se Llama Christina.” (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

When their haze begins lifting, the Man and Woman don’t know where they are, who the other person is, or even their own names. During the play, he’ll be called Mike, Miguel, and Mikey, and she’ll be Vespa, Vesta, and Vera, a sure sign of identity issues. Pretty soon they realize that their baby is missing; in its place in the crib is a fried chicken leg.

Se Llama Cristina is about parental fears regarding having and raising a child. (Solis says he wrote it to work out his anxieties after the birth of his daughter.) These fears even lead the parents to imagine how life might have been different had they not had the baby, but once that happens and they lose their parental identity they have to rediscover who they are. This takes them on a journey of self-discovery as they recall the events that brought them together (they met when she called a rape hot line and got the wrong number) and led to their becoming the parents they were fated to be.

The outside world invades in the form of Abel (David Anzuelo), the Woman’s super-macho ex, a jealous telephone lineman, and, in a sort of coda, the Kid (Yadira Guevara-Prip), a 16-year-old girl who climbs in from the window to offer an uncomfortable glimpse of what that chicken leg might grow up to be.

The Man is a would-be poet, and the crumpled papers on the floor imply both his writing struggles and, I imagine, his inability to come to terms with being a father. His language, which often resorts (like everyone else’s) to profanity, is pierced with shafts of colorful imagery. The shaved-head Rodriguez, although not especially charismatic, plays him well, but the raven-tressed Zilles, as she did in INTAR’s Adoration of the Old Woman, steals the show as the fiery Woman.

Yadira Guevara-Prip and company in "Se Llama Christina." (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Yadira Guevara-Prip and company in “Se Llama Christina.” (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Solis is a magic realist, shifting gears from gritty naturalism to dream-like theatricalism, allowing him to move freely through time and space and to accentuate the play’s more emotional aspects through heightened stage effects. Director Lou Moreno’s often sluggish staging, however, except for only scattered moments, is determinedly realistic, which clashes with the phantasmagoric mood conjured up by the Caligari-like scenic touches.

The most successful stage realizations of magic realism—including some of Shepard’s plays—work best when a believably realistic environment mutates through lighting and sound into hallucination before resuming its normal appearance; it’s often better to avoid the kind of literal tipoff shown here. Apart from a moment when Abel pops up from behind a sofa, and when the door opens and closes without being touched, the principal otherworldly moments are the swooshing sound effects (created by Frances Sitges-Sardá) heard as the lighting (designed by Christina Watanabe) suddenly changes when scenes end.

There are valuable things in Se Llama Cristina, which runs an intermissionless 90 minutes. Nevertheless, accessible as much of it is moment to moment, and intense as certain moments are, it doesn’t avoid lapsing into incoherence and boredom. Some folks, like the fellows in the elevator afterward, will be scratching their heads when they depart.

Se Llama Cristina
INTAR
500 West 52nd Street
Through May 3

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).