by Samuel L. Leiter
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.
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.
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
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).