September Shoes and its wimpy character development trip up Western Stage.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
Playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez seems like a good fit for Salinas, for Hartnell College and for Western Stage. He is a prolific Latino playwright who focuses especially on the lives of Mexicans in America, with an emphasis on The West, a diaspora that he’s mined in works like Sunsets and Margaritas, which Western Stage produced last year, and the short work Odysseus Cruz, based on Homer’s Odyssey but set along the modern day U.S.-Mexican border. His original play, September Shoes, is directed by Lorenzo Aragon, who also directed Sunsets, and deals with grief, guilt and redemption through the prism of dead-but-not-forgotten family members. But there’s a few things amiss that cause these Shoes to stumble, like someone new to writing plays is getting their footing, instead of showing the knowing strides of the veteran with a bio like Gonzalez’s.
The play begins somberly, portentously, with all the characters doing a sort of funeral march and wandering morosely like ghosts about the set – different locales represented by a motel bed, a wall of shoes, a table and diner stools, a giant red chair leg structure, a cemetery and a pretty desert sky backdrop – while a teenage Ana (Natalie Mendoza) lip-synchs Jeff Buckley’s “I’m Calling You” as sung by Jevetta Steele. It’s a beautiful song that evokes the yearning of desert nowhere towns, as in the movie Bagdad Cafe, for which the song was written.
The events take place in a small Texas town of Dolores (“dolor” meaning “sorrow” in Spanish), a blip that’s more populated with the departed in its cemetery – most recently longtime resident Aunt Lily Chu, who owned Mexican-Chinese restaurant El Dragon Azul. Her death brings back to town her niece Gail Cervantes (Sylvia Gonzales) and her plastic surgeon husband Alberto (Robert J. Vasquez), two former residents who married each other and moved away, seemingly for good, 20 years ago. They’re back to attend the funeral and tend to affairs, complaining about their retrograde hometown while staying in the motel in which cleaning woman Cuki Zuniga works.
Zuniga has a thing for shoes. She’s the first to address the audience, telling us that people in her village used to go barefoot before a Catholic nun shamed them into wearing shoes and that their “feet no longer felt the earth.” Now, as an adult, she can tell much about a person’s soul through their shoes’ sole. Ah. Playwright Gonzalez does not get tired of that play on words. I wish he had. He’s also into expository dialogue, as if he won’t be heeding that “Show, don’t tell” maxim.
“This place conjures up things I’d long buried,” Alberto says to his wife Gail. “Señora, you have a hole in your shoe,” Zuniga tells her… a hole in her soul. Get it? It goes on like that for a while.
Alberto has dreams or visions of his sister, Ana, who entreats him to take her to a school dance so she can dance with a certain boy. She’s an apparition of magical realism who accompanies various characters and channels other voices, coaxing and cajoling toward some ominous revelation. The caretaker of the cemetery is a quirky rascal named Huilo (played Sunday afternoon by Carlos Cortez, otherwise by Cesar Flores), a sort-of handyman religious kook who’s carving the names of the town’s dead into a giant sculpture of a chair he’s made for God.
Alberto doesn’t speak Spanish and insists he be called Albert, both indications of a disconnection with his Mexican heritage that isn’t explored or explained. Another thing that comes out of nowhere: Gail’s discontent.
“Something’s changed,” she tells her husband. “Why won’t you talk to me?” And the audience here might be like, “Huh? Lady, that man’s been talking to you the whole time. We heard it. What are you talking about?” It’s perplexing. But then we realize that the playwright must have remembered that everyone must bear some moral decision that they will later face. Gail’s is her identity and fidelity to herself as an individual.
As characters interact, mostly in ways one would expect – housekeeper Zuniga has something important to impart to comfortably bored Gail – there comes another revelation. Though playwright Gonzalez seems a good fit for Salinas, this play, despite the use of magical realism (and I’m not sure dream sequences actually count as magical realism) and its heavy central conflicts, is lightweight in its handling of character and ineffective with believable dialogue. The acting didn’t help. And it needed to.
With lines like “Why did [God] create us? So we can suffer and die?” and “Perhaps if I scrub harder, I’ll get the stain out” (ah-ha, a metaphor!), before breaking down into tears, the acting really needed to bridge the gap between the unbelievable language and the audience. But instead it was flat, mostly hurried, and perfunctory, not conveying the sorrow of the death of family, though Molina as Zuniga comes close, and Vasquez as Alberto is likable.
The technical details help, and Western Stage has always been strong there. The set is an assemblage of several places using minimum stand-alone set pieces. The giant chair leg, protruding like a giant appendage from the restaurant roof, is American West desert kitsch cool. So is the “Chinese” lettering on the restaurant sign. The lighting and sound design work, like the wind and wind chimes sounds that accompany teen ghost Ana’s appearance. But there were several times when the boisterous music and applause from the musical Spring Awakening next door, playing at the same time, intruded into the Studio Theater. It’s impressive that WS has the dexterity and experience to handle two productions at the same time, but there were some moments when I wished I was in the other theater instead. That’s not a good sign.
SEPTEMBER SHOES runs 7:30pm Friday and Saturday, 2pm Sunday, through Oct. 7, at Western Stage Studio Theater, Hartnell College, 411 Central Ave., Salinas. $20. 755-6815, www.westernstage.com