Magic realism rears its shaggy head in Philip Boehm's Alma en venta (Soul On Sale), the lodestar production to lead off Stages Repertory Theatre's Sin Muros Festival in February, a salute to “Latina/o” artists. The comprehensive “Without Walls” jubilee features the world premiere of Josh Inocencio's Purple Eyes, readings of plays in development, poetry jams, student workshops, and panel discussions dedicated to Latina/o culture and its artistic expression.
It should be noted that playwright Boehm is a white guy, born in Texas. He is artistic director of St. Louis' lauded Upstream Theatre, very much in the mold of Stages with its diverse array of old and new, community outreach, and theatrical pizzazz. A playwright and director, Boehm is better known as an award-winning translator of German and Polish writers, among them Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller (The Fox Was Ever the Hunter and The Hunger Angel). Sorry to say, his playwriting skills, as evidenced here, fall short of his perceptive translations.
Watching a painter paint is about as galvanizing as watching a writer write. So Boehm lards his play with plenty of art history asides, which are more interesting than the play at hand – how the grand masters made toxic white paint out of vinegar-laced lead buried in manure, or the finesse of antique Greek artist Apelles of Kos vs. rival Protogenes of Rhodes, or the protagonist's love of Spanish Renaissance portraitist Francisco de Zurbarán – but these are only filler in the extreme, like the musical interludes. Diaphanous and new-agey, Anthony Barilla's tone settings are wispy and atmospheric, better and lighter than the galumphing play his music describes. Every now and then, everybody breaks into song. This play/musical/vaudeville is all over the map.
An artist on the verge of a major breakthrough, Arcadio Rogers Rodriguez (the always-amazing Luis Galindo) suffers with painter's block. His smarmy agent (Josh Morrison, in his patented smarmy way) urges him on, if only to hit the big time with this hot client. He's finagled a one-man show at an esteemed gallery. You can see dollar signs in Morrison's gimlet eyes as he calculates his future commission. But Arcadio is troubled. How can he justify putting his heart and soul into a work of art if the end result is to sell it? What happens to his soul?
I guess Arcadio has never heard of a professional artist. Isn't that their calling? You paint and people buy. Van Gogh wanted to sell his work, Rembrandt wanted to sell, Picasso wanted to sell. I don't think they were troubled by their soul being appropriated.
I know, your eyes are rolling into your head. Mine were, too. As were the patrons around me, whose shuffling, clearing of throats, and sighs were potent omens that this play wasn't going anywhere fast. This is a mighty dull play.
To spice up the plot, Boehm introduces a phalanx of female characters – Mom, deaf Muse, Girlfriend, Demonic Seducer (all played by Briana J. Resa, some portrayed with more finesse than others) – who wheedle, coax, lure, or shame Arcadio into continuing his work. His girlfriend has one wordless scene, another lasting four or five sentences and then disappears forever after. The seductress, who wears a skintight leotard, slithers like a snake, and wears a mask – masks, worn or suggested, are a prime motif throughout – gives him a vial filled with a secret potion to mix into his paint, something that will bestow his paintings with immortality, granting Arcadio an existential eternal life. Are there no limits to Magic realism?
Mom is the best charmer of all, as she shuffles on stage and bops her wayward son on the head as she pulls soup, tortillas, votive candles, pants, and a tube of black paint the color of his dead sister's hair out of her bottomless shopping bag. At least she brings comic relief to this soporific affair. Holy Frida Kahlo, what is going on?
Honestly, I don't think Boehm knows. In his attempt to be relevant and compassionate, his meandering play comes off as patronizing, smug, and a big yawn.
However, the set design by Michael Heil – notwithstanding Galindo's miraculous prestidigitation – is the best part of the show. The play is presented within a metallic grid box, from which individual frames are pulled down to represent Arcadio's work in progress. Paint splatters smudge the corners of the set, which is ringed in sand (don't ask me why, but it looks terrific), and Zurbarán's chiaroscuro masterpiece, St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb, is foreshortened on the stage floor. Projections of paintings are displayed on the background screen, but they eventually become haphazard and perfunctory as the show goes on.
Arcadio paints a line on one of the imaginary canvasses. An animated line appears on the background screen. He draws another, and another line forms. He then thrusts at the painting with the tip of his paintbrush, like an Olympic fencer, but not a jot appears on screen. He lunges again, no daub. This doesn't bode well. The play follows this pattern to a fault.
If playwright Boehm isn't entirely connected to what he's trying to say about the life of an artist – the immigrant angle is clumsily tossed aside after a few cursory jabs at Trump – watch Luis Galindo and learn a few things.
One of Houston's most skilled practitioners, we've seen him body-slammed as a lucha-libre wrestler in The Amazing Entrance of Chad Deity; cuckolded and sex-obsessed in The Motherfucker With the Hat; obtuse and sex-addicted in Snow White; pandering and sycophantic in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot; omniscient and wise-ass in Marie Antoinette (he played her pet sheep). There's nothing he can't play, and when in doubt he plays it anyway, without regrets and full throttle ahead. He works his magic here with much less to sustain him. We may not believe anything that's happening, but we believe Galindo. He's the one person alive on stage, in-the-moment, as actors would say. It's marvelous sleight-of-hand. He's the only picture we can believe.
The Milwaukee Art Museum owns Zurbarán's St. Francis. Its web catalog describes the iconic painting thus: “Few Baroque works so poignantly address the ultimate questions of reality and illusion, substance and shadow, life and death.”
Alma en venta never addresses any of these weighty issues; it never comes close. At the end, Arcadio cuts through the wire mesh that's entrapped him and emerges on our side. What, fresh and clean? New born? Sadder but wiser? There's no depth, truth, or reality in this play's faux magic realism. Certainly, no magic, and not much that's real. Has Boehm ever looked at the Zurbarán painting except when it's been stenciled on a stage floor?
Alma en venta continues at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays through February 11 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $25 to $59.