Sunday, August 26, 2007

Angels on the down low

When José Rivera's Marisol opened in New York in 1993, many took it as a kind of Latino riposte to Tony Kushner's too-white-for-its-own-good Angels in America, which had opened the year before. Marisol, however, had actually been completed in 1990, about the same time as Millennium Approaches; the two works had developed in tandem - and intriguingly, were shadowed by the same sense of thematic overreach. Neither brought off their promised sense of annihilation and re-alignment (neither did the millennium!), but Kushner, with his gay Mormons and his face-offs between Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg, nevertheless orchestrated stunning collisions between the extremes of American culture that still reverberate today. Marisol, by way of contrast, has practically dropped off the cultural map - perhaps because, despite a savagely-etched vision of apocalypse that Kushner never matches, Rivera fails to pull together what amounts to a series of disturbing vignettes into anything approaching a real play; in fact, he doesn't even try.

And if the brand-new Orfeo Group, which is staging Marisol at BU's Studio 210 through Monday, can't transcend the script's limits, it's obvious why they chose it anyway: these perversely spicy sketches, peopled by on-the-edge or over-the-top types wielding machine guns, knives and golf clubs (!), must taste like catnip to talented theatre grads. Thus it's no suprise that in its maiden effort, Orfeo has pulled together some of the best young actors in town. As a whole, the ensemble is certainly among the strongest of the year, and deserves IRNE and Norton nominations, although said whole is essentially elevated by three of the six performances. Elizabeth Hayes, who last impressed as a smart, knockabout Helena in Boston Theatreworks' Midsummer, here builds on that impression with an up-to-the-minute career grrl who's unfazed by the moon dropping from its orbit, and who is soon believably splashing gasoline on vagrants and setting them afire. Risher Reddick likewise delivers a memorably gonzo performance as a homicidal loser who winds up, once the apocalypse has reversed the natural order, as the first pregnant man. But the show really belongs to Daniel Berger-Jones, who, fresh off his success as the fey personal assistant in Mr. Marmalade, here confidently executes a brutal suite of hair-raising turns (most memorably as a seemingly flayed-alive street person who's still searching for his skin) that may cement a reputation as Boston's most versatile actor.

Elsewhere the performances are solid, but perhaps not strong enough to cover the plot's roughly Winnebago-sized holes. Ramona T. Alexander, whom Brandeis has been keeping all to itself the past year, gives her guardian angel role her best shot, but can't really cut through its rhetorical limits, and Georgia Lyman is only intermittently compelling as the Woman in Furs, who even though the city is in smoking ruins is still looking for her matinee of Les Miserables. At the show's center, Cristina Miles once again provides an appealing ingenue performance, but little more. Given that Marisol's Puerto Rican identity, and her hard-won entry into the middle class, should resonate with the curious ability of Rivera's apocalypse to play hacky-sack with the social hierarchy, Miles' lack of specificity in accent and physicalization is disappointing - director Sarah Golden Martin, who has drawn such high quality work from others in the cast, should have demanded more. She certainly got a lot out of sound designer Peter Bayne and lighting designer Caleb Jon Magoon, who with the help of a little haze, together manage to conjure quite a bit of end-of-the-world atmosphere. The only real downside to the evening is that finally, Orfeo's trip to hell hasn't been worth the trouble; but with a more worthy script, it will be interesting to see just how far this group can go.

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