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Locked In: Magic Theatre and SF Playhouse Break Cycles 

Wednesday, Feb 13 2013

In the Magic Theatre's "rolling world premiere" production of Se Llama Cristina, written by Octavio Solis and directed by Loretta Greco, set designer Andrew Boyce so meticulously renders a landscape of poverty that, watching it, you feel cockroaches crawling on your neck. The grime-caked walls of this place are supported by baseboards made of cork, and one cleaner rectangle suggests the former site of a picture frame. Grease shines from the linoleum floors, on which trash and battered pieces of furniture are scattered like the islands of an archipelago. The grayish lighting, by designer Burke Brown, makes it impossible to tell whether it's night or day.

For Vera (Sarah Nina Hayon) and Miki (an amiably bewildered Sean San José), it doesn't matter whether it's night or day anyway. The couple have more urgent concerns: figuring out how they know each other, what they're doing stuck in a dingy room, and why there's an empty syringe bobbing in Miki's arm. During the rest of the play, they try to answer those questions, only occasionally succeeding. Their problems are compounded by Vera's predatory boyfriend, Abel (a scrumptiously villainous Rod Gnapp), who sniffs out his runaway lover like a bloodhound, as well as the haunting presence of a possible infant, symbolized by a crib and a leg of fried chicken.

Just when you think you can identify this cyclical play's chronological beginning and end, it upends those conceptions. Yet there is one clear progression: The couple's bond is withering under the stress of trying to survive on the run, which means giving up Vera's dreams of becoming a teacher and Miki's of writing poetry.

Parts of the play feel artificial. Forays into narration are incongruous and stilted, and the first scene, in which both characters have some kind of amnesia and are locked in a room for no apparent reason, reeks of contrivance.

Yet Solis' drama transcends these flaws through the power of the theater to simultaneously stage two different outcomes. The characters glimpse a way out of their downward spiral with a vision of the future that's at once discouragingly similar to and infinitely richer than their present.

Over at San Francisco Playhouse, the West Coast premiere of Stephen Andy Guirgis' The Motherfucker with the Hat shows Hispanic characters trapped in other kinds of cycles: the chronic abuse of drugs and loved ones. At rise, Jackie (Gabriel Marin, with everyman charm) is at the zenith of his recovery, with a new job, a feisty girlfriend, Veronica (an alternately fearless and childlike Isabelle Ortega), and a supportive sponsor, Ralph (Carl Lumbly). But within minutes, over-the-top foreplay — "You're gonna be levitating 3 feet off the mattress" — becomes an over-the-top spat — "Go lick your sponsor's fucking balls, bitch." The cause is the hat of the title, belonging to a mysterious man. When Jackie sights it, he circles it as a shark marks its prey, prompting him to sniff Veronica's room for further evidence. The olfactory verdict? "Aqua Velva and dick."

In some ways, this is a classic story of love, betrayal, and revenge that also covers perennial Guirgis themes: the self-loathing and self-denying of the addicted; the self-righteousness of the clean; and the relationship of both types to a nebulous, impossible ideal of being a good person. This play is lighter fare than the Magic's, more tragicomedy than drama, especially with the tremendous Rudy Guerrero as Jackie's cousin Julio, a smoothie and spirulina fanatic who knows every word in Ricky Martin's canon and has a gluteal move choreographed for every beat. The play is also a remarkable study in characterization through dialogue. You don't need Ralph's wife, Victoria (Margo Hall), to tell you that Ralph is egocentric and cruel; you can see it in the way that, after Jackie has gone from the top of the world to a pit of anger and hurt, Ralph doesn't change his language (or, to Lumbly's credit, his tone of voice) in the slightest.

Taken together, these two plays bring deserved attention to the ways in which our nation's largest ethnic group struggles against conceptions of the American Dream. In a society that demands forward movement, some of us are mired in cycles of hardship that cannot be escaped by desperation alone.

About The Author

Lily Janiak

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