29 August 2009

El Otro, the Same

Thick House Theater has revived El Otro by Octavio Solis, and for me this sentimental melodrama is their first real misfire since I've started attending their productions. “Sentimental melodrama” may conjure up a Victorian well-made play like Way Down East, but though it is an accurate description, it's not how you experience this drama, which has very fancy ways of telling its very conventional story.

Romy is a 13-year-old girl being picked up from her father Guadalupe (called Lupe) by Ben, her mother Nina’s new husband. Lupe, a drug dealer and general low-life, insists on bringing them to a ranch to give Romy a farewell present. The story is told mostly from Romy’s point of view, which is unfortunate since she’s the least interesting character on stage (and Maria Candelaria looks about ten years older than the rest of her stage family). She takes some peyote before the Dad exchange, which presumably is why she often breaks into less than entirely plausible stagey-poetic stream-of-consciousness monologues that contrast sharply with her normal demotic style of speaking.

Ben (Johnny Moreno, good here and so good in Thick House’s Blade to the Heat, a much more interesting examination of ethnicity and masculinity) is an Army private, a second-generation immigrant Mexican from Chicago who doesn’t speak Spanish. For some reason everyone keeps calling him by a different army title (I think Lieutenant) and he has to keep correcting them. There are some recurring themes and images that develop (for example, dogs, associated with Lupe and his past, and horses, associated with Nina and Ben) but this isn’t one of them.

Another much-repeated bit that goes nowhere is Lupe’s repeated insinuation that Ben wants to molest Romy, which Ben then indignantly denies. There’s no reason to believe this is anything other than Lupe being ugly, so all the repetition does is make you wonder why Ben is putting up with Lupe.

Lupe is presented as sort of a trickster figure, which strikes me as an extremely sentimental approach to someone who is basically a bully and a thug. There are various other attempts to add mythic resonance with various magical-realist elements, but they mostly appear for theatrical effect or to paper over implausibilities. I suppose it’s a tribute to Sean San Jose’s performance as Lupe that it is even slightly plausible that Ben would accompany him, given Lupe’s relentless crude insults and threats. Ben’s motive for going is presumably to protect his Nina’s child, and sure, he’s meant to be slightly passive and safe, but it’s difficult to believe he wouldn’t fight back, and pretty early on too.

All Ben really had to do to win Nina (the appealing Presciliana Esparolini) is deal with some very spicy salsa; after he proves his Mexicanness by eating peppers so hot they make him sweat, she tells him she has a daughter, and the news not only doesn’t scare him off, he determines to be a father to her child. But Romy, in the unoriginal way of children of divorce, resents the interloper, though you’d think she’d be grateful that at least one adult shows some interest in her. Yet she rejects him until his arduous ordeals finally convince her he is worthy of her love.

I find it very strange, and very limiting to the play, that it consistently takes such a superficially adolescent point of view. Ben seems like a stand-up guy, but we're supposed to sympathize with Romy's hostility (if you lose patience with her attitude, then the evening really drags in an irritating way – trust me on this). The emotional focus of the play is Ben winning Romy, not her mother. Romy repeatedly rejects him because he’s “a nerd,” a longing for a cool dad that is difficult to take seriously, especially given Romy’s life with the violent and unstable Lupe.

But this is one of those explorations of ethnicity that insists that the only real experience for its people is as an underclass. You hear about black or Latino school kids saying that studying is for whites and so forth, which strikes me as a tragic example of internalized racism. Yet it's this adolescent point of view that this play embraces in its insistence that Ben must always give way to Lupe, so that he may be purged of his attempts to lead a regular middle-class life and instead be initiated into true Mexicanness.

Because apparently a non-Spanish speaker from Chicago doesn’t count as a real Mexican. Ben must suffer the underclass indignities of the illegal immigrant – a dangerous river crossing, harassment by border patrol, physical violence, and various other trials. You can dress up the humiliation of Ben as a vision quest or a search for an authentic self and toss in all sorts of colorful magical realist bric-a-brac, but not respecting Ben’s experience on its own terms is really no more than a way of insisting that Certain People just don’t belong in Certain Places.

It turns out that the whole thing is based on a passionate love triangle from the past that ended in violence. Nina and Anastasio (who melds with Ben and is played by the same actor) are having an affair. His parents disapprove so they go to Lupe and demand that if he’s a man – if he’s a Mexican – he end things. Not unexpectedly, these taunts lead him to kill Anastasio, and I’m not sure what else the parents expected, though it’s also not entirely clear that they realize their son is dead. They seem to think he's just been otherwise occupied for fourteen years. It’s also not clear why Nina sticks with Lupe for over a decade after he’s killed her true love, or why she’s never told Romy that Anastasio is her biological father (as if it matters; apparently no one here has heard the expression “Your father is the man who raises you” – what an odd faith in bloodlines). Yes, it’s the same old clichéd story – hot-blooded Latins vowing vengeance! killing for honor! Living by a primitive code in a sunbaked land!

There's a lot of yelling and gunfire and blood. You don't even get the payoff of seeing Romy start to move from her adolescent point of view to an adult point of view. It's all just teenage wish fulfillment.

Oh, those Latins! So much passion! So much screaming! So much spicy food!


vicmarcam said...

Ugh! It sounds like it was written by a teenager in some well meaning writing class that received a grant of some kind. To make it worse (correct me if I'm wrong...I've seen too many bad movies), I'm guessing that Ben ends up using violence to save himself and Romy, thus making him more cool?
Please at least tell me that Ben was at least able to explain or show that, though not an immigrant, his life hasn't been a walk in the park, either (if he's old enough to become an acting father to a 13 year old, then the fact that he's still a private needs an explanation).

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I don't know how old Solis was when he wrote the play, but I do have the impression he was pretty young. Also, I believe he played Lupe in the original production, which may explain why he's so indulgent to him.

No, Ben doesn't really start using violence at the end. There's a lot of stuff in there that makes it clear this is sort of a visionquest/Carlos Castaneda thing, with some blurring of past and present, what with the peyote-taking and all. I kept thinking about Homer S. and his soulmate and wondering when the coyote that sounded like Johnny Cash was going to show up. I didn't want to give away too much of the ending in case anyone was planning to see it, and also it just wasn't worth the trouble to me.

Ben is a Private Second Class, I think. I'm not familiar with army rankings so I didn't know quite what it all meant or if he was old for that rank or why they kept calling him Lieutenant or whatever. He briefly mentions some typical trouble he got into, which led him to join the army for discipline at his father's suggestion. It's not specified how old he was when he joined the army, but he could have been in his 20s. I guess he might be kind of a young stepfather, but you pretty much get the impression everyone has children at a young age, so it didn't seem like a big discrepancy.