As one of San Francisco's most prominent playwrights, Octavio Solis has a long relationship with Magic Theatre. The Magic was one of the first places to produce Solis' plays in the Bay Area after he moved here in 1989. Although his work has gone on to be much produced elsewhere, including recent productions at the California Shakespeare Theater and Marin Theatre Company, it's been 16 years since his last play at the Magic, although he directed Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brothers Size there two years ago.
Now he's back with the world premiere of Se Llama Cristina, directed by Magic Theatre's producing artistic director, Loretta Greco. Originally commissioned by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the play makes its debut as part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere that will go on to productions at Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas, TX, and The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, CA. It's a good thing Cristina is going on to further development in subsequent productions, because while it has moments of brilliance, other parts are still pretty shaky.
In fact, the play's all about shakiness. A man and a woman wake up in a tiny, dingy apartment (an appropriately oppressive set by Andrew Boyce), not knowing who they are, where they are, or even whether if they even know each other. The fact that they're passed out in chairs around a kitchen table with syringes next to them (or in their arms) provides a pretty good clue, but the man insists he never uses that stuff.
For people who can't remember anything about themselves, they certainly know a lot of random stuff about the world and their attitudes. The woman thinks her name might be Vespa, but no, that's a scooter, and the man finds a chicken wing in an otherwise empty baby crib and knows by a whiff that it's neither KFC nor Popeyes. Both are Mexican Americans who "don't date Mexicans" and claim to know nothing but curses in Spanish, though they speak it more and more as the play goes on.
Their past floods in on them in abrupt flashbacks. The woman, Vesta, calls what she thinks is a rape hotline but gets Mike (our mystery man) instead, who talks her through her terror of her abusive redneck husband, Abel. She and Mike run away together, westward from Texas, and have been running ever since.
Mostly they seem to get drunk together and hide out from the possessive Abel, a phone company maintenance worker who seems to always be able to track them down, because he's "the Telephone Man." Once they're enlightened with slim slivers of their mutual backstory in these reenactments, they start chatting about their childhoods and dating histories as if they'd remembered them all along.
Greco's cast for the Magic premiere is terrific. Sean San Jose gives Mike a boyish energy that's sometimes gentle and gallant and other times peevish. Sarah Nina Hayon shows formidable strength as Vesta, though she's beaten down and at the end of her rope. Rod Gnapp's Abel is sinister and insinuating, with a menacing leer, and Karina Gutierrez makes a big impression late in the play as an indomitably spunky teenager.
The show's only eighty minutes without intermission but feels long, with some parts repetitive and others just a spinning of wheels. The scenes reacting to the flashbacks are particularly underdeveloped, with a lot of mind-blown reiteration of information. Although lighting designer Burke Brown's lights shift to indicate whether we're in the past or the present, it still becomes confusing when flashbacks are nestled inside each other. And the faux-uplifting ending gets more depressing the more you think about it.
Solis has a marvelous flair for dialogue. It's funny and often poetic without straying too much from a natural vernacular. When Mike says, "'Cause a man in his most lonesome suit of clothes craves nothing but to be there for a woman who needs him," he says it not to be fancy (though he later finds out he's an aspiring poet) but because he means it -- and sure, to impress a woman as well.
The drama plays with questions of memory, destiny, and shifting identity in a clever and slippery way. Amusing and sometimes horrific revelations spill out as the two play detective to try to put the pieces of their lives back together. Some of these shards are sharp and fresh while others are well-worn and downright soapy, but the process of reassembling them remains more intriguing than the picture they finally recreate.
Se Llama Christina runs through February 17, 2013 at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit magictheatre.org.
All photos: Jennifer Reiley.