I ended up at one of the preview performances of Shotgun Players' Heart-Shaped Nebula, by Marisela Treviño Orta, directed by Desdemona Chiang. It starts off as a relatively realistic drama about Miqueo (Hugo Carbajal) , a man in his thirties, who is still recovering from the death in a car accident years before of his longtime girlfriend Dalila (Marilet Martinez). He encounters Amara (Gisela Feied), described in the website's synopsis as "a rebellious teenager who is more than she appears to be," and the story gradually takes off into realms of magical realism. Since it was a new play, and a preview, none of us knew much more than that. Before it started I was chatting with the older woman in the seat behind me, who was diminutive but with a pleasingly self-reliant and weathered look, as if she'd spent a lot of time on a ranch. Suddenly she burst out, "I'm not too sure about this play! All this magical crap – it's just too Berkeley for me!"
There was no intermission and I didn't get a chance to ask her afterwards what she thought, but I have to say that I found the magical elements pretty charming (in both senses of both words) – it was the realistic elements that I had problems with.
Miqueo and Dalila grow up in Texas; she is passionately interested in science, particularly astronomy, and he grows up to be an artist specializing in murals. He has returned to a significant spot in the desert where the stars are clear to seek some sort of end to his grieving for her. We find this out gradually, as he tells his story to Amara. "Rebellious teen" Amara has broken into his hotel room and stolen some of the items he wants to bury, in particular a ring from his dead sweetheart. Miqueo returns to his room and realizes she's stolen the ring and he wants it back. Clearly the obvious thing to do is call the police, and the playwright realizes she needs to deal with this obvious objection and get the two talking. So Miqueo pulls out his phone, and Amara threatens to accuse him of attempted rape – and, since she's thirteen, that would be child molestation as well.
Sorry, this is not the behavior of a "rebellious teen": this is the behavior of a sociopath. Petty theft: not OK! Blackmail and false accusations of rape and pedophilia? Really, really not OK! (Anyone who thinks otherwise should check out Shotgun's reading of Hellman's The Children's Hour, coming up in January.) And if he really did try to rape her, why would he be calling the police and getting himself in trouble? No sane man would spend another minute alone with someone like that. Instead, he caves in, gives her his leftover pizza, and starts telling her the story of his great love. That is far more fantastical and improbable than the most extravagant manifestations of the wildest magical realist. It's not that I don't believe a girl would issue such a threat, or that a man would be stupid enough to give in to her blackmail; it's that he would then proceed to open up to her about the most significant events of his life. This sort of thing happens only on the dramatic stage; in real life, such an encounter would produce only sorrow and the sordid.
I felt that Treviño Orta was spending too much time on the mechanics of getting these two together, and doing it in a way that smacked of stagecraft rather than anything approximating real life. There were other, simpler ways she could have had them meet that would obviate the need for unsatisfactory explanations as to why they were together and talking: they could encounter each other in the desert, at an all-night diner, on the streets of Vegas where Amara has been doing a magic shadow show that turns out to echo significantly something from Miqueo's past (one of the first clues that Amara has a role besides petty thief and blackmailer). Almost anything else would have been better, because after about the first fifteen minutes I'm contemptuous of them both, and that's a lot to come back from in a 90-minute play.
It's a tribute to the script and the director and the actors (though I thought they were still feeling their way into their roles; it was a preview after all) that they did come back from that beginning. There were themes and metaphors drawn from science and mythology (the two meet in the constellations we claim to see in the stars) that were well-done and engaging. But awkward questions kept coming up: Dalila is terrified of darkness and has to have a flashlight with her in case she needs the light to dispel an anxiety attack. That flashlight failed two, maybe three times, and I'm thinking, Why wouldn't you carry a spare with you? I think the playwright's idea of moving slowly from realism to magical realism was a good one, but for me was the realistic parts were not real enough, and the magical parts were a bit too lovely.
I thought the play could maybe have used some of the grit and ugliness of reality. One danger with magical realism is that everything can get too pretty, your love becomes too momentous, and has an emotional significance that can seem (to outsiders) too much like wish-fulfillment. There's only one brief line in which Miqueo mentions how all of his non-Dalila relationships, with family, friends, and lovers, have failed. I would have liked to hear more about that, the ways in which he thinks they've failed, and why. I think we're meant to find his final reunion with Dalia heart-warming and inspiring, but to me it's awful and ludicrous that Miqueo can't find any meaning in his life after Dalila's early death: the play is all about feeling that a certain type of love is the only thing that matters (and remember: only one per customer!). And I just don't share that feeling. (I wonder if anyone middle-aged does?)
There was enough in this play that was compelling and promising so that I would be interested in seeing other plays by Treviño Orta, though I did feel this one was a mixed bag: there's some ungainly and, to my mind, unsuccessful dramaturgy in the first half, and then a lush romanticism in the second half that – well, I was going to say "that I don't respond to," but that's not quite true; maybe such stories need the stylization of the operatic stage and the beyond-speech power of music to unhook them enough from daily life. But even music isn't always enough, and I will admit that the failure there is probably mine. During this play I kept thinking about La Bohème: a great and beloved work, and if you told me it was your favorite opera of all time I would respect that and understand why, but . . . though I see where it's going, I can't quite follow it there.
(The second photograph shows one of the eye-catching murals, different for each show, that get painted outside the Ashby Stage; you can read more about them here.)