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Octavio Grande 

Thick Description's operatic Dreamlandia strains to realize its complex vision

Wednesday, Aug 28 2002
The new play by Octavio Solis at Thick House begins like a good opera. There's a crash of thunder and the sound of rain, and a wild-haired boy named Pepin (who looks like a coked-up Che Guevara) comes out to narrate the birth of Lazaro, the main character. We watch it happen: Lazaro's mother is about to die in birth agony. When the arrogant father refuses to send her to a hospital, the midwife lays a withering curse on the new child, and disappears into a flowing river. "Swim, bitch," the father says, aiming a pistol across the water. More thunder and rain. The child, Lazaro, survives, but when we see him again, in the third scene, he's a filthy, doglike creature, chained to the wall of a cell on an island in the middle of the Rio Grande.

This florid plot owes most of its complications to Pedro Calderón de la Barca's classic Renaissance drama La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream). Solis has lifted both his story and his theme from Calderón, transplanting them from a kingdom in Poland to the dusty border region between El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Mexico. The play is grandly ambitious. It should be wonderful, or anyway more wonderful than it is. Solis, who directs this West Coast premiere, got his start as a playwright in San Francisco. After working for a few years in other parts of the country -- including Dallas, where Dreamlandia premiered -- he's returned to his artistic home to show us his latest script.

On the surface, Dreamlandia deals with race and identity on the Mexican border, but Solis elaborates these tensions into a meditation on reality and dreams, which gives the show a colorful strangeness and stretches it to a fat 2 1/2 hours. Pepin, the brain-damaged boy who looks like Che Guevara, goes on an odyssey with his beautiful sister, Blanca, to find their father in Mexico. Both of them look (and are, we discover) half-white. Their Mexican mother, the midwife, has died; she wanders this border region as a ghost. The first person they meet is Lazaro, in his prison cell. He smells like mierda and reads nothing but fashion magazines and TV Guide. Blanca makes him swoon, though; he falls in love. Then she leaves, and Lazaro gets drugged and hauled away by border cops who work for his father, a smuggling kingpin in Juárez named Celestino. Lazaro, the exiled prince, wakes up in a plush bedroom of Celestino's, and from his fashion magazines he recognizes the label on his new silk pajamas: Pierre Cardin.

Solis plays with the word "dream." Sometimes he means imagination or memory, the surreal place where Pepin's mother survives. At other times he means daydreams of wealth and luxury. The United States emerges as one aspect of Dreamlandia, the shining country across the river, beckoning the poor of Juárez, who have "more reality than they know what to do with." They're drawn to the lights of El Paso "like moths to a big marquee," says Blanca, "and then they get burned." Blanca herself becomes an illusion for most of the play -- she dresses as a boy to survive the streets of Juárez -- while Pepin, her brother, takes a volunteer job with the border patrol. He gets to roam the Rio Grande area with night-vision goggles. Expensive yanqui technology isn't real night vision, though, and Pepin's adventure ends in despair.

Solis' play is evocative to the point of overload. After the lively characters register as figures from Calderón (a chained prince-in-exile, a young woman passing as a boy), you wish Solis had stuck to his story in Texas rather than crucifying these modern people on the metaphysics of a Renaissance playwright. Instead, he piles theme on top of plot complication, incest and identity drama on top of references to the drug war, border politics, and NAFTA. The result is not a brilliant homage to a Spanish master so much as a complex melodrama that ends in a welter of high-flown, unmotivated speeches ("This is how we conquer fate," etc.).

The problem isn't technical. David Molina's soundscape of thunder, rain, and water drops creates a dreamlike atmosphere, and the actors do excellent work. Sean San José is a fierce Lazaro, who can't control his temper even after he's dressed in silk. Dena Martinez is urgent and childlike as Blanca, pixieish even when she wears a man's suit. Jorge Rubio makes a wonderfully manic Pepin -- especially sporting those night-vision scopes -- and Cully Fredrickson seems fresh from a Sam Shepard play as Frank, a laconic border guard.

No, things break down only at the end, when the writing strains to finish what the grand overture has started. The play can't sustain so much high-blooded philosophical drama. Calderón is a fine model for Solis, but his beautiful ideas seem just out of reach, like a shining, seductive dream.


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