Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Slow dance with development
Socorro Santiago counsels Monica Raymund in Boleros for the Disenchanted. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.
From the fall season so far, it's clear the Huntington is more committed than ever to new play development - so committed, in fact, it seems to no longer be producing finished plays. Already on its stages we've seen How Shakespeare Won the West, Wishful Drinking and now Boleros for the Disenchanted - and there's not a fully-developed play among the three. (Over at the ART much the same tendency is in evidence - Let Me Down Easy, however, was at least described as being "in evolution," and I'm still mulling The Communist Dracula Pageant, although offhand I'd say it's far from finished, either.)
And this would be fine, of course, if both theatres weren't mounting finished-play productions - and charging finished-play prices - for these works-in-progress. Indeed, one begins to wonder if 'development' is ever intended to end for these plays or their playwrights; after all, why should an author go the extra mile and really "finish" a play when he or she can score a fully-mounted production with what's essentially a second draft?
What's intriguing about the drafts we've seen so far, however, is that in many ways they're highly sophisticated. Several have boasted a few striking scenes (the seeds, perhaps, from which their ungainly structures grew). And behind their various dramatic devices, we often sense an almost over-considered thematic "matrix," and even a genuine dramatic sensibility (tinted, of course, with ironic self-awareness), which, no doubt, is what drew the attention of the scripts' first readers (well, that and the celebrity of their authors - Rivera's been nominated for an Oscar).
What we don't sense is craft. Sometimes we even sense an unconscious contempt for craft. For when it comes to the hallmarks of integration that should mark a finished play - the modulation of pace, the sense of rising action, the sublimation of symbol into situation and character, the natural music of dialogue - all these scripts have come up short. Indeed, some have even made great, knowing sport of the fact that they were really immense skits without any of these attributes.
But to be fair, at least José Rivera's Boleros for the Disenchanted (at the Huntington's Wimberley Stage through Nov. 15) is tantalizingly close to completion. Then again it should be - this is actually its second full production, and Rivera did a substantial rewrite after the first (at Yale). No doubt he'll put pen to paper again after the Huntington run - and maybe after a few more "try-outs," he'll really have something! (But by then he'll also have completed the whole regional circuit.)
It's also only fair to admit that Rivera has set himself a structural challenge with Boleros: the play is divided between the beginning and the end of a long marriage (at left), with intermission as the "hinge." Specifically, Rivera has let us know, the marriage in question is based on that of his Puerto Rican parents, here "Flora and Eusebio," who came to the U.S. from that "Isle of Enchantment" (whose emigrants are, perforce, "disenchanted"). Thus the play is not only divided between birthplace and adopted home, but between a lot of other stuff, too: innocence and experience, chastity and promiscuity, faith and skepticism - well, you get the picture. Rivera gives himself a lot of thematic ground to explore. And I mean a lot.
And he's felt free to to go about that rather baldly, beginning with the symbolic names of his leads (I'm sure you have no problem with "Flora," but most U.S. audiences won't pick up on the fact that "Eusebio" derives from "devotion"). Rivera likewise allows his characters to veer off into either naked exposition or naked philosophizing (remember all that ground he wants to cover), in a lyrical voice that is clearly not their own but his. Still, in the first half the playwright manages to keep together a very conventional, but appealing, tale of a lovely young girl who must decide between two suitors, and her own attitude toward masculinity - in a nutshell, can Flora trust in the dream of lifelong fidelity, as personified by Eusebio, or should she surrender to sexual realism, as personified by the smooth-talking Manuelo?
Flora (Monica Raymund) confronts her choices, Manuelo (Juan Javier Cardenas) and Eusebio (Elliot Villar).
Needless to say, if Flora didn't pick Eusebio, and then endure disappointment, there really wouldn't be a second half to this play. But as it stands, that second act - in which the actors playing Flora's parents, Jaime Tirelli and Socorro Santiago, take over the roles of their children - is pretty lumpy, because there's little forward action, and a lot of theme-and-variations still to unpack: both Flora and Eusebio have lost their dreams (hers romantic, his financial), they've become images of the parents they sought to escape, and are their hopes, like their nostalgia, ever more than illusion?, etc., etc. Rivera has come up with one solid scene to anchor Part II (in which, while taking last rites, Eusebio must 'fess up to his sexual failings), and a pretty good "sub-plot" that's not yet fully developed (the aging Flora offers marriage counseling to a naive babe and dude). And the playwright is (honorably) at pains to delineate his characters' slow physical failure, a trajectory rarely considered on stage, but which we all must face. The results are warm and humane, and dotted with lovely grace notes, but still kind of a mess.
Boleros has potential, though - I hope Rivera actually gets that third production, so he'll do another rewrite. The second half simply needs a stronger throughline, with greater clarity given to Rivera's ironic under-theme (that Flora's insistence on fidelity may be a form of death-wish); the playwright's already halfway there, with a visiting nurse whose dose of pills could mercifully end it all. That plus the subtler interpolation of political background - and keeping everyone more or less in their own voice - could lift Boleros from prose into poetry, or even song.
And also justify a lovely production like the one at the Huntington. Director Chay Yew can't really cure the script of its ills, but he provides the proceedings with all sorts of subtle touches, and generally draws strong work from his skillful cast. The heartbreakingly beautiful Monica Raymund is the standout as the fiery Flora - and if, as her aging self, Socorro Santiago doesn't quite keep her glowing emotional embers alive, she does hold on to her weary judgmentalism. As Eusebio, both Elliot Villar and Jaime Tirelli are effective, if slightly superficial (Villar is actually at his best as the goofy, horny young dude of Act II). Maria-Christina Oliveras likewise conjures a full character from a few scraps as his uncertain bride, and the agile Juan Javier Cardenas, after impressing as the slick Manuelo, impresses again, and then again, as two very different parish priests. The reliable Alexander Dodge supplied the lush, but somewhat cramped, set. All I can say is it would be nice to see the whole team re-united once Rivera has finished his play.