José Rivera’s 1993 apocalyptic absurdist comedy Marisol has always had at least one central flaw: for a comedy, it isn’t all that funny. A lot of what was funny in 1993—making fun of the French, for example—feels flat today. Not that there are no laughs (there are); it just doesn’t feel as topical as it once did. And that makes it all the more critical that any production of the play get everything right. Unfortunately, the one that opened this weekend at the Raven Theatre, produced by the Promethean Theatre Ensemble, feels a bit like a recipe that was underdone and, perhaps, got some of the main ingredients wrong in the first place.
One aspect that is entirely right is the set, a slice of graffiti-and-garbage-strewn urban blight designed by Promethean ensemble member Jeremiah Barr and lit inventively by Liz Cooper. On this city nightmare scene we meet Marisol Perez (Rosie Ramos) a young woman who has educated herself out of the Bronx but for reasons that make sense only to her continues to live in a crowded, cockroach-infested, violent apartment building there although she works downtown. (If you look for any of Marisol’s decisions throughout the play to make much more sense than that, you’re in the wrong theatre. Go out to the lobby and have a cup of coffee. Oh wait: you can’t. According to one of the play’s conceits, coffee—and apples–are extinct.)
One of the play’s conceits is that coffee is extinct.
The basic plot of the play is that God has become senile and, according to Marisol’s Guardian Angel (a brilliant Jazzma Pryor, done up like a Kabuki gang member with enormous grey/black wings), he “is old and dying and taking the rest of us with him.” The angels have reached a rather dubious conclusion: they are all going to abandon their posts guarding humans and instead wage full, all-out war against God, who’s still, after all, pretty Almighty.
“He’s better armed, better organized, and, well, a little omniscient, but we have to win.”
Suddenly the whole world is threatening to look as “lost” as the moon does, wandering around the solar system without a clue where it is. (It was last spotted near Saturn.) These absurdist touches, introduced near the start, still work well. But once the play’s focus turns to the violence left in the angels’ wake, it’s difficult to find anything at all humorous. Perhaps director Juan Casteñeda just can’t find it, and there are definitely some scenes he might have mined for more than he got. The golf club vs. switchblade confrontation comes to mind: it’s such a ridiculous mismatch that he might have found more for the characters to do than circle the furniture for four minutes. If not this, then the ice cream attack. I mean, come on: Marisol is being attacked with an ice cream cone. But mostly I think the problems here lie elsewhere.
There are some scenes he could have mined for more laughter…I mean come on: Marisol is being attacked with an ice cream cone!
The cast of this production is certainly likable, and everyone works remarkably hard. But once you get past Pryor and ensemble member Megan DeLay (as June and others), there isn’t enough there there. Ramos is sincere and sweet, and her anguish seems real enough, but there is nowhere near enough nuance or gravitas in her performance to carry a play with this kind of complexity. I could hardly believe that she was a department head, let alone that she had any kind of logical reason to live in the Bronx or that Marisol could face any kind of crisis of faith. Ensemble member Jamie Bragg, as the Woman in Furs, fares a bit better but has much less to do: her character has far less complexity and far less stage time. (She does have a great line reading about buying a hat, though.) DeLay is all overflowing energy as June, a very open and enjoyable performance, and when she plays other characters she disappears into them enough that we don’t immediately see the same actor onstage.
This should go without saying for an actor playing multiple roles, but it is a problem for the fifth member of this ensemble, Mike Cherry. A strong performer, Cherry’s quirky physical presence (tall, bald, possessed of a lush, curly beard) make it extremely difficult for him to disappear into multiple characters. We first meet him as a homeless man on a train who threatens to beat Marisol to death with a golf club. Later, he’s the ice cream attacker. Then he is Lenny, June’s odd younger brother (who obsesses over Marisol). Finally, he is a wheelchair-bound homeless man who was burned by a neo-nazi in a park. (The play deals with neo-nazis; that is one aspect I really wish felt less topical.)
Cherry makes a strong effort to create a second character with the ice cream attacker despite the fact that he looks so clearly the same. And he creates a completely new character, even keeping his face and beard hidden, for the burned man. But the other two—Lenny and the first man—are so close as to be inseparable. And when Lenny somehow manages to end up with a gold club too, well, let’s just say it’s very confusing. Cherry is good, and I’m sure no one would ever want to tell him to do away with that beard, but he has to do more when playing four roles.
The play deals with Neo-Nazis, which is one aspect I really wish felt less topical.
One of the best parts for both Cherry and Ramos comes near the end, in a scene in which Lenny gives birth to a stillborn child. His anguish is palpable. And Ramos, wandering from grave to grave labeled with the one-day or one-week lives of these infant dead, feels very nearly broken. Would that she might channel this kind of passion throughout the whole play. Too often she substitutes volume and painful expressions for real emotion. As I said earlier, she is likable, but leaves something to be desired where nuance counts.
Honestly, I wanted to like this play more than I did. The set and actors are enjoyable and the script is, if nothing else, original and interesting. But it just didn’t come together for me. Sometimes a recipe just doesn’t work.
Marisol is now playing at the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark in Chicago, through Nov 29. Tickets are available from Promethean Theatre Ensemble; tickets cost $25. Find more information about this and other plays at theatreinchicago.com.