Friday, October 15, 2010

THEATER: Dramatis Personae

Photo/Richard Termine

There's a burnt-out window and shards of glass strewn all over Lucas's sleek bachelor pad, but Dramatis Personae opts not to explain it; instead, Ben (Gerardo Rodriguez) tells a story as he, Marla (Liza Fernandez), and Lucas (Felix Solis) tidy up. Ben's been inspired by a palimpsest of graffiti in a local bookstore's bathroom, particularly by the guy who simply writes "Boobies." "That guy I want to meet," he concludes. "Or create." In other words, Gonzalo Rodriguez Risco wants to give us the creative whimper, not the destructive bang, wants to catch the idea in action, and he aims to do it by crafting a literary ghost story in which three haunted writers--living in the terrorist-riddled 1990s Lima, Peru--face their own creations.

It's an interesting concept, but one that lacks dramatic weight: as Lucas puts it, "It's not a story. I'm just thinking out loud." And while Erik Pearson's direction is ravishing--he neatly casts Bobby Moreno and Laura Esposito as the characters within each writer's story; they pop up through beds, drop out of windows, and hang around creepily; they are everything (id, ego, superego) the writers are not--the actual process is more therapeutic than enthralling. (Ben adds, "Writing is cheaper than therapy.") What little subtext exists in what their creations might represent is quickly diminished by having in them calmly, rationally discuss it. A beautifully quirky thought like "When I die, I want to be cremated and stored in an unmarked container beside the coffee... So that sometimes people get confused and... Drink a little bit of me..." quickly becomes the mundane "I will not be remembered... Lucas will."

Pretty as that thinking may be, and well-delivered by Rodriguez and Solis, it never to leads to a confrontation. Ben is frustrated that Marla doesn't see him as more than a fuck-buddy, and jealous of the way she fawns over an oblivious--but more successful--Lucas, but he simply escapes into his fantasies. The same goes for Lucas, who feels he can only write by exploiting--killing anew--his dead brother, but that brother (Moreno) only appears to him as a glib mouthpiece, an ambivalent conscience, than as a needy specter. Marla speaks to the "Absolute control over the fate of whoever I create" philosophy, whereas Ben claims that his characters are "sneaky," but Risco is trapped by what Ben points out: "Things don't exist until you realize they're there." As the ultimate writer, Risco has realized everything, and he never loosens the reins. The occasional cleverness of his craft can be appreciated, but not its heart, not its lack of confrontation.

The longer the play goes on, the harder it is to shake its artificiality: the careful structure of writing meet-ups and hook-ups followed by revisionist writings (presented in monologue form), with the characters slowly spilling into the scenes. (Toward the end, Lucas even announces his idea of the perfect ending, and sure enough, those words are what close the play.) Dramatis Personae begins with such a promise of dramatic catastrophe, it's the mundane cleaning house that the audience ends up with.

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