How far would you go to get ahead in your craft? The myth is that legendary bluesman Robert Johnson went to the crossroads and met the devil at midnight to sell his soul in exchange for mastery of his guitar. But can that deal ever be broken? Author and playwright Philip Boehm explores this Faustian struggle in Alma en venta (Soul on Sale), making its Texas debut at Stages Repertory Theatre.
Boehm — who was born in Houston, has traveled both sides of the Atlantic and is the founder of St. Louis's Upstream Theater — says artists and writers are faced with all sorts of dilemmas during the creative process.
"Are we putting some of our soul into that art and in the world where art is commodified and in our world, what is the cost of that and are we — if we’re putting some kind of dollar mark on our soul — how do we justify that? How do we live with the commercialization of what we love? Where is that line drawn?"
The playwright says he has friends who have written for People magazine and vowed to never work for the publication again. In Alma en venta, main character Arcadio Rogers Rodríguez is a painter who wrestles with inner demons after achieving great success.
"It’s not a plot driven piece; it’s more of an associative piece. I’m thinking poetically," says Boehm, who is directing the production for Stages. "It’s really about the internal, interior struggle of an artist coming to terms with something that stopped him in his tracks."
Boehm says the play investigates that elusive something. "This artist finds out that he is visited by a muse, his deceased mother. It’s a non-linear piece so there we are, inside his world, and we experience some of these moments through his emotions and at the same time he soliloquizes often about his art, about art in general maybe."
In addition to producing dozens of plays, Boehm also is an award-winning literary translator, finding joy in "transposing those voices into another key." He calls it working alchemy with the hope that the result is more gold than fool's gold.
Fluent in English, German and Polish, Boehm also dabbles in Spanish and has worked in snippets of Spanish dialogue into some of the scenes in Alma en venta. "Most of the play is in English," says Boehm. "But there are scenes where there is one character who, when he appears and converses with the lead, they speak in a mix actually of Spanish and English."
He doesn't expect there to be any learning curve for Houston audiences, even for those who don't speak Spanish, likening it to modern-day productions of Shakespeare where the language is so distant from ours. "We’re watching people, actors, come to life in another way," says Boehm. "Through the gestures — the acting itself — of course the message can be conveyed.
"My goal is that it’s sensual, sensorial," says Boehm. "I want some kind of sensory experience. Hopefully they’ll think about it on the way home."
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The production at Stages will be different than its St. Louis debut, and not just because there are different actors (Luis Galindo, Josh Morrison and Briana Resa) or that Stages is a thrust theater rather than proscenium.
Sound is by musician Anthony Barilla, who does double-duty on stage as part of the performance. They also riff on art and paintings, including Saint Francis of Assisi contemplating a skull by Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán, and they've hired muralist Verny Sanchez to add another dimension to the set by painting the surround.
Alma en venta also closes out each night of Sin Muros: A Latina/o Theatre Festival, taking place at Stages February 1-4. The Texas-centric festival includes the world premiere of Josh Inocéncio’s Purple Eyes, as well as readings of new plays by Mando Alvarado, Bernardo Cubría and Tanya Saracho.
Performances of Alma en venta run January 24 through February 11, 7:30 p.m. Wednesays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123, stagestheatre.com, $25 to $59.