2 out of 4
Was it a parable? An autobiography embellished by memory? An unexceptional life revivified by fantasy? A hallucination induced by head-trauma?
All of these are potential interpretations of Latin American playwright Alejandro Ricaño’s Firefly Love. Produced by Something Marvelous, a company devoted to magical realist theater, this whimsical romp crosses borders both real and imagined, travelling in that liminal space between the mundane and the fantastical. As with most magical realism, the genre seeks to reenchant the life gone stale by reveling in the uncanniness that’s indigenous to even the most quotidian of human experiences. We are usually socialized to abandon the boundless imagination of childhood in order to mature into rational, responsible adults. But, Ricaño asks, what if growing into our own happens to be the most fanciful endeavor of all, requiring us to fabricate a chimerical self that does not yet exist? The Midwest premiere of his play, however, stultifies this creative passage to selfhood by reinforcing what magical realism resists: the idea that flights of fancy are merely child’s play.
Part memory play, part travelogue, part romantic comedy, Mari̒a’s (Steph Vondell) serpentine journey of self-discovery begins when she decides to travel from her native Mexico to Bergen, Norway—home of her hero, Henrik Ibsen. Like Ibsen, she too is a young playwright. Unlike the master dramatist, she’s a second-rate writer for children’s theater in desperate need of inspiration. After she begins drunkenly punching out a new play on a typewriter rumored to be cursed, she spots her doppelgänger on a cable railway car—an event thrice recounted by Mari̒a in her attempts to puzzle out the aberration. When her mysterious double begins taking over her life, even whisking away her on-and-off again boyfriend of ten years to Guatemala, she enlists her trusty BFF Lola (Allyce Carryn Torres, who nails the alchemy of dryness and ditziness) to help her find and finally confront the impossible imposter.
Be advised: you shouldn’t try to explain away the play’s more incredible elements; the playwright doesn’t want you to. As he confesses through the mouth of his protagonist, “You know how I detest metaphysics.” For all its narrative digressions and ontological paradoxes, this nonlinear monologue-cum-supporting-cast takes the shape of a spiraling character study. Mari̒a’s globe-trotting symbolizes her trek through the geographies of her own interior. Ill-tempered, insatiable, gassy and prone to rashes—where will the hapless Mari̒a go when her flawless, Platonic double insinuates itself into her few precious relationships?
Under the direction of Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary, the speculative lyricism of the script (lushly translated by Hector Garza) receives a static, illustrative, and cramped staging. In an already shallow blackbox space populated only by four rehearsal cubes, designer Nicholas James Schwartz has erected a multi-colored pastel façade with fragments of Norwegian and Mexican maps. It evokes both the stained glass of Mari̒a’s catholic upbringing and the set of a children’s theater production. In theory, it’s a nice concept. In reality, the garish structure restricts the mobility of the actors and the imagination of the audience. In its center, transparencies (drawn by puppet designer Isabella Karina Coelho) are projected onto a large screen, along with the occasional actor’s shadow. Carrasco-Prestinary employs these cartoonish illustrations, which double-down on the puerile aesthetic, almost exclusively to denote a change of location—making them feel both perfunctory and pedantic. Worse still, they halt the dynamic images of dusty roads and undulating boats the text so sensuously evokes in the mind’s eye. More complimentary are the ambient atmospherics of Jeffrey Levin’s sound design, which transport us to fields and cars and Mexican villages with subtle sensory chirps, revs, and the soughing of the wind.
Likewise, the physical direction invariably paints white-on-white. The ubiquitous pantomiming adds little of visual or interpretive substance to the scenes. In certain moments, it works to viscerally embody a memory of significance—as when Ro̒mulo (Martin Diaz-Valdes) gives Mari̒a her first orgasm under her skirt or when she’s magnetized to the hands of Ramo̒n, a rural guitar-maker (played by Victor Maraña with an artless, romantic simplicity). But the evocative power of poetic language draws from metaphor and unusual associations; it asks for the body to assume metaphorical dimensions as well. And when the stage action literalizes poetry’s intangibles, it disrupts its peculiar resonance and betrays a lack of confidence in the audience. Like a Sunday School flannelgraph come to life, actors restlessly enter and exit the playing space to demonstratively mimic or silently mouth the words or actions Mari̒a attributes to them. And when they engage in dialogue, it’s as if they were directed to create the silliest and flimsiest versions of their fleeting characters. The cross-dressing gags, for instance, elicit a smile at first but then wear off, and the chances to develop signs of genuine relationship with her parents and boyfriend are all exchanged for chuckles. The result is a strange fusion of sketch comedy and children’s theater. Unfortunately, the amateurism sometimes associated with those forms’ worst exemplars appears to be what’s most emulated in the staging.
Fortunately, Firefly Love has a spunky actor shouldering the show. With a text that would stretch the chops of even the most talented and seasoned pros, Vondell captures the insecure neuroticism and quirkiness of Mari̒a. She spits out dialogue with a biting humor that bubbles up from a palpable undercurrent of self-loathing. But when the text rises to a more imagistic register, she tends to coast on the language with a monotonous intensity that leaves in its wake a jumble of undifferentiated images. This, I’m guessing, is a symptom of the show’s misplaced attention to other, less illuminating elements of the staging. Like the glow of a firefly or life’s ephemeral moments of serendipity, Something Marvelous’ production only intermittently lights up and allows us to experience, as adults, the wonder it seeks.
Firefly Love runs through July 15, 2018. Show are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased online at somethingmarvelous.org or by calling the Athenaeum Theatre box office at 773-935-6875.