Deep water, hard rock

Pub date December 5, 2006
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

In a house overlooking the San Francisco Bay, a young painter named Amy (Dena Martinez) hosts a seeming vagabond, Palo (Johnny Moreno), through one long grief-filled night. She’s in numb, guilt-stricken mourning for her husband, a purportedly shallow man who, out of his emotional depth, stepped off his sailboat, into the ocean. Palo, for his part, is convinced he knows Amy as Lila, the woman he once loved, abused, and has been searching for up the long coast from Mexico. So their meeting at the Marina Safeway, where Palo finds Amy stalled in the detergent aisle staring helplessly at the Tide, comes fraught with significance for both while reflecting the humor, irony, and metaphorical richness at work throughout Gibraltar’s brilliantly layered poetry.
The latest work by internationally acclaimed Bay Area playwright Octavio Solís, the San Francisco–<\d>centered drama was commissioned by and premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2005. Its impressive Bay Area debut comes somewhat revised, in an intelligent, well-crafted coproduction by Thick Description with the San Jose Stage Company (which will host it in the South Bay in early 2007). Solís’s relationship with Thick Description goes back a long way — to the playwright’s first major theatrical success, 1993’s Santos and Santos — and despite some unevenness in the generally strong cast, artistic director Tony Kelly’s discerning staging surely reflects, in part, the fruit of this long association.
Scenic designer Melpomene Katakalos renders Amy’s environment, a plank-board living room whose sole furnishing is a futon, with a serene, dreamlike simplicity, as if that futon were a life raft adrift in an endless night. One assumes Amy has taken the handsome but intensely volatile Palo home to her flat as an instinctual reflex betraying her acute loneliness and sexual tension.
Their violent courtship, which takes the form of competing stories, is as much a struggle as a dance, a wrestling with deep feelings and needs worthy of the term Solís uses throughout — duende — the ultimately untranslatable Andalusian term for a kind of soul or spirit, what Federico García Lorca spoke of as coming to life “in the nethermost recesses of the blood.” Visually, it is evoked here in the blackness at the edge of the stage (and also, later, in a poignant unveiling of a canvas entirely painted over in black).
Amy’s and Palo’s dueling stories, or cuentos, form a strong narrative current, pulling other stories, equally suggestive of duende, into the fray: a young man (David Wesley Skillman) whose boyhood grief over his father’s suicide resurfaces in the affair he has with the woman (Vivis) who drove the older man to despair; a police officer (Danny Wolohan) driven to desperation and self-doubt when his wife (Danielle Thys) leaves him for another woman; and finally, the story of Amy’s own involvement with a middle-aged man (Michael Bellino) and his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife (Joan Mankin), which begins to unravel the secret of her own despair. As she replays these scenes, interacting with them in a spot where time and space dissolve, Amy finds herself compelled to rewrite them. “This is not how the cuento ends,” Palo complains. “You’ve changed it. You’ve changed everything.”
Gibraltar’s mediation on love — its ruthless, destructive ferocity and its redemptive promise — shrewdly mimics the forces at work on its eponym, washing over its audience with the turbulent yet creative force of the surf as it constantly reshapes the shore.
Alone and horny on Christmas. Not even Mrs. Claus deserves that. But when Cochina (a nickname meaning “pig” bestowed on the title character as a free-spirited child by her deeply repressed and highly authoritarian maiden auntie) responds to this crisis with a militant government-funded abstinence program, she’s asking for some karmic retribution. Thus Marga Gomez’s solo show The 12 Days of Cochina — a revised and politically up-to-date version of her popular 2001 play, sharply staged by Theater Rhinoceros artistic director John Fisher — follows a jilted, sex-starved lesbian through a not exactly Dickensian but still Ebenezer Scrooge–<\d>like reawakening. Fans of the charismatic playwright-performer don’t need telling, but Gomez’s work is consistently funny and smart, and her high-energy performance is as deft as they come.
Through Dec. 17
Thurs.–<\d>Sun., 8 p.m.
Thick House
1695 18th St., SF
(415) 401-8081
Through Dec. 17
Wed.–<\d>Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Theatre Rhinoceros, Studio Theater
2926 16th St., SF
(415) 861-5079