Magic realism is a genre that takes time to get use to.
Originating in Latin and South America between the two world wars, as literary historians believe, magic realism blends hyperreality with hyper-fantasy in a sort of Dairy Queen swirl. The mixing of kitchen-sink realism with flights of fancy can seem precious or twee if not deeply rooted in the mundane, from where fantasy can emerge as if absolutely normal.
There are as many theories about why it started in Latin America as this genre has tenets and conventions. Most assume it was the writers' reaction to newfangled surrealist paintings they saw on trips to Europe that inspired them to tweak their prose. Or, maybe, a delayed reaction to colonialism, or a natural combo of their own indigenous myths and legends with the love/hate attitude toward the west. Whatever the reason, magic realism bloomed south of the border and spread internationally: Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges (Fictions and A Universal History of Infamy), Colombian Nobel-prize winner Gabriel Garcia Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Death in the Time of Cholera), Indian Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses) and even our own Toni Morrison (Beloved) are subtle practitioners of the art.
Playwright José Rivera is not so subtle. In Mildred's Umbrella's uneven production of his Cloud Tectonics (1995), we are beaten about the head. The fantastic elements of the story don't seduce so much as pummel. What should be ethereal and mysterious morphs into annoyance and unintentional humor. While there are quirky time-shifting surprises throughout, they don't embrace and draw us into the play, they push us out. And if this is some eternal, forever-continual love story, a Möbius strip of the heart, where's the love?
The most intriguing bit is the beginning. It's night in Los Angeles, and our heroine, Celestina Del Sol (Patricia Duran), thumbs for a ride during the "storm of the century." Cold and wary, she munches on soggy crackers as car lights sweep over her very pregnant figure and pass her by. In her red peasant dress with its bottom edge of lace, she is very much out of place. Within minutes, we discover that she is very much out of time. Not as in final-days-out-of-time, but displaced in time.
She is picked up by Anibal De La Luna (Greg Dean), a baggage handler at LAX. Bathed in red as they wait for the traffic light, we learn that Anibal loves L.A. for the "women falling out of the skies," for the disasters waiting to happen. Celestina is searching for the man who got her pregnant back in Montauk, Long Island. She was accosted by the last man who picked her up, but she doesn't want to call the police or go to the hospital. This good Samaritan offers her shelter for the night. "I'm not going anywhere," she says ominously (and will say repeatedly throughout this one-acter); "I've lost track of time." We learn more about these two misplaced characters until the light finally turns green. Time has indeed slowed down if not stopped in this surreal introduction, perhaps the only moment at which we truly feel lost in time.
We're in magic-realism land, with a vengeance. The characters' names are weighty enough: Luna, Sol, Celestina. We get it twice the first time.
When Anibal describes his 1915 craftsman house, Celestina asks if that's old, as if time were in flux or unimportant. Then she's off on a rant about sex and how she thinks about it during "endless day dreaming, night dreaming." Then she hits him with a stunner: She's 54 years old and has been pregnant for two years. Though he has a "hot girlfriend," Anibal impetuously kisses her, then apologizes. I'm not sure that's when Anibal notices his watch, his phone and his TV have stopped, but we're sure not in Kansas anymore. Suddenly, Anibal's macho brother Nelson (Darnea Olson), on army leave, arrives to see his brother after six years. Without provocation or character preparation, he swears eternal love to Celestina, caressing her pregnant belly while he hears the ocean inside her. Then he's off, back to his base. Wait for me, he pleads to Celestina.
After a bit of body rub and kissing of toes, mingled with Anibal's reminiscences of childhood sex with his cousin Ava, Anibal and Celestina climb the ladder to the loft bedroom. (At least this bit of overt symbolism comes with a visual trope built in.) Before anything happens, who returns, without mustache and using a cane, but Nelson, out of the army and anxious to resume his paternal duties. Time has passed, but it hasn't; it's now and the future.
Unable to grasp what is happening, Nelson runs away into the night. Anibal chases him, while Celestina grabs her meager belongings and quickly leaves. In an epilogue, Celestina with her baby remembers the "big one" that hit L.A. and wreaked havoc with 14 million refugees. It's the new LA, now the capital of the United States, with street signs all in Spanish. She's back at Anibal's, who's now much older and dying in bed. He doesn't remember her. "I want to love you through every age of your life," Celestina says to him, rubbing his feet this time. "Why do I think I've had this conversation before," he asks as the audience stifles a giggle.
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Not for one second in this overheated drama do we ever believe there's some eternal love going on. Blame Rivera for amping up the poetry and over-obsessing about time, but, also, I fear, Dean is sadly miscast. A complete pro, he's graced us with amazingly revealing performances at Catastrophic Theatre, especially in Beckett, but in this role as an everyday schlub who's caught in Celestina's time-bending web, there's not a spark to be had. No way he's had women falling from the skies, or that he's hot to trot. He never comes alive, as does Duran, although she, too, must overcome dialogue as heavy and rich as a Thanksgiving dinner. But at least she seems lost in the stars, unable to quite comprehend what's going on or why she's the one time has chosen. Buff and steely Olson certainly looks the part of hardened young warrior, but Rivera's flowery prose hasn't yet settled comfortably inside him. His physical presence, as he showed impressively in Edge's Nijinsky's Last Dance, carries a good share of the character.
Director Jennifer Decker, Mildred's artistic director, has a fine eye for atmosphere -- those opening scenes set the mood in bold strokes -- and keeps Rivera's heavy-handedness a bit on the light side, which is a good thing.
An Oscar nominee for his adaptation of The Motorcycle Diaries and an award winner for his plays Marisol and References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, Rivera conjures magic realism with the soft touch of a sledgehammer. If only he would trust his fantasy more and not make everyday reality such a slog.
Cloud Tectonics Through February 7. Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street, 832-463-0409, www.mildredsumbrella.com.