Dictionary.com defines an epic hero as a “brave and noble character...admired for great achievements or affected by grand events.” Theatre Coup d'Etat puts one center stage in their current production of Jose Rivera’s award winning play Marisol, an epic, mythic tale, set in New York City circa 1992. Rivera, an Obie Award winning playwright and Oscar nominated screenwriter, still writing and producing on the west coast, is often included in the cannon of magical realism and some suggest he should be included in The Theatre of the Absurd. After experiencing this play I can see why. One reviewer gave up trying to define it, conceding “Marisol does not lend itself to intellectual analysis.” Well, I’ve been reading quite a bit in prepping for this piece and had a lively post show discussion with my mother who joined me at the theatre. I think I’ll take a stab at it.
Marisol is an overwhelming tapestry of themes and ideas that resonate as much today as they did in the 1990’s. At the top of this food chain of disaster there is a crisis of faith. God has grown old and his angels are forced to rebel in order to save the world he’s decided to neglect. Greed and wealth rule the economy, the government has turned its back on the people and they are forced to turn on each other, beatings and burnings abound. Assimilation encourages gentrification, people are forced to give up their cultural past in hopes of a better more homogenous future. Resources are diminished, fight for basic survival becomes the priority, and the collective mental health is splintering, potentially beyond repair. Marisol is the chosen one to usher the world into its next iteration, and as the story’s reluctant hero she spends the entire first act attempting to avoid the role. But, after struggling (like hell), she finally accepts her fate and sets off on her quest to figure it all out, whatever “it” is. "Marisol, is a comedy of terminal devastation that concentrates as many ideas as events into the time it takes to write off the world--and then write it back in.” This is not easy stuff to unpack but “go big or go home” right?
Coup d’Etat is always up to the challenge. The company, along with some of its usual suspects, are wonderful at using people and things in creative ways to establish the world of the play. Their theatrical choices in technical production are always compelling and inspired. This is no exception. Right away the ensemble generates the reality of a subway train to the Bronx. They are awesomely accurate in sound and style down the grumblings of the disgruntled conductor, trust me, after 10 years in NYC I can do his spiel in my sleep. Visually, garbage bags are strewn around the playing space (we are in early 90’s NYC after all) but not just for show. They are brilliantly used as storage and hide the necessities for scene and costume changes. Besides being clever, it helps with the timing and efficacy of transitions. The city noises in general are authentic and pretty darn accurate. The arguing neighbors rang true with me personally as I recognize those neighbors, I HAD those neighbors when I lived in Queens. Acting wise, Dana Lee Thompson as THE ANGEL, is beautiful and strong with a resonating voice and commanding presence. Likewise, Craig James Hostetler, is painfully raw as LENNY. He wears his mental fragility on his sleeve and skillfully transitions between an abused animal and an immoral monster with an insatiable desire for violence. These were definite highlights for me.
That said, I had some questions. Site specific set in New York City, there was little of that essence brought to the production. Rivera, grew up in New York (after moving with his family from his native Puerto Rico). His language is lyrical but wry, dry, bitingly funny and I think moments of levity were missed because that sardonic inherent New York-ness wasn’t cultivated. The play is very dark and we need those laughs to make it through to the end with any morale still in tact.
In that same vein, I was a little confused that there were no accents. I’m not always convinced that regional accents are necessary but when the text indicates, it becomes a little odd when they are not used. Something like “not gonna do this no more” and several other lines sounded awkward spoken in transatlantic speech, especially when at one point the character of June (a stoic Kelly Nelson) ironically mentions midwesterners and ridicules their “flat accents.” It also might have helped illustrate the running theme of corporate ascension and gentrification. Two women climbing the corporate ladder from bridge and tunnel, Brooklyn/Bronx to upper middle class publishing houses in Manhattan. As the world crumbles, I wanted to see a little professional polish wear off (especially during high stress scenes in their respective boroughs). I actually heard someone say on an uptown A, “you can take the girl outta the Bronx but you can’t take the Bronx outta the girl,” and though Sabrina Diehl, in the title role, is a solid young actress, grounded and present, from a central casting point of view I had trouble seeing her as Marisol, the sassy urban professional in her mid to late 20’s. Through no fault of her own she didn’t read old or experienced enough.
Lastly and purely technically, (though the space is lovely for music and is immediately tested at the top with Nelson’s delightful singing voice), any language that wasn’t spoken clearly or was shouted in higher pitches got very muddy and caused me to lose words because of the vaulted ceiling. I’m not sure there was anything to do about the acoustics but it was frustrating and left holes in an already conceptually complicated play.
The bottom line: I think the production has some beautiful and powerful moments, but I wasn’t totally sure walking out of the theatre what message I was supposed to take with me. In reality the world is going to shit. I get that. People are selfish and greedy, and are mean to those different from themselves. The planet is dying and it’s our fault. There are guns and knives and golf clubs. There is credit card debt and homelessness. And though our epic hero, Marisol, as earlier defined, is affected by all of these “grand” events, what exactly does she achieve? What does she discover? What does she figure out? The last words of the play as the world is ending, are "Oh God. What light. What possibilities. What hope." Those statements came out of nowhere for me. After watching two hours of denial, devastation, and utter despair, hope was the last thing on my mind. If it was in there, I didn’t get it. To be fair I don’t know if that is the play, the production, or just me, but I guess it wasn’t just an essence I was missing...if we’re talking intellectual analysis, I think it’s very possible I missed the point.