The Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop/Festival gloried for 17 years (1978 to 1995) in the development of new works by such modernist playwrights as Murray Mednick, Sam Shepard, John Steppling, Irene Maria Fornes and David Henry Hwang. The recently formed Padua Prods. has now moved into its “post-modernist” period with the preem of Wesley Walker’s sensory-intense “Wilfredo,” set in the surreal environment of a Tijuana bar. This exposition-laden word poem piles imagery upon imagery in its dissection of the spiritual dismantling of an aged bartender, but it fails to generate any tangible audience involvement in his plight. This thematic detachment is certainly no fault of an outstanding six-member ensemble led by John Horn in the title role.
“Wilfredo” is the third work in Walker’s triptych of dramatic sketches of Southern California life (following “Freak Storm” and “The Conception”). The plot is arid in its simplicity. Haughty and declamatory barkeep Wilfredo (Horn) has lost track of his “treasure,” two gold coins he prizes as much for the petty thievery that brought them into his possession as for their intrinsic value. To get them back, he invades the lives of two self-serving Americans, wealthy entrepreneur Tanner (George Gerdes) and TV newsman Rutlege (Jack Kehler). Adding texture to Wilfredo’s quest are a trio of local denizens: Esther (O-Lan Jones), the daughter of two local tequila distillers; her subfunctional husband Nester (Barry Del Sherman); and Wilfredo’s ethereal but sensual barmaid Roberta (Christine Maria Burke).
The coin quest is merely the playwright’s ploy to lay bare the weaknesses and strengths of each character while commenting on the hate/lust relationship that binds the cultures on both sides of the border. He succeeds in creating captivating but isolated moments of dramatic brilliance. These droplets of intrigue, sensual and grotesque, poignant and profane, do not unite into a cohesive whole. Walker succeeds in creating cerebral distance rather than emotional intimacy.
Whatever the playwright’s ultimate destination, the ensemble makes the journey thoroughly enjoyable. Padua vet Horn creates a fascinating matador-like persona as the life-whipped bartender who has nothing else to cling to but his own seedy posturing. Gerdes and Kehler are outstanding as the spiritually barren Americans who know no other manner of courtship other than to wave the flag of material comfort at the object of their seduction. Jones’ Esther exudes a benign but haunting acceptance at whatever stimuli crosses her path. And Sherman’s Nester is a hoot as he finally acquires enough information about himself to make a stand for dignity.
Burke provides the highlight of the production as simple-minded Roberta realizes she has no other responsibility than to turn Tanner and Rutlege into immobile gargoyles of lust and need.
The sets, lights and music of Jeffrey Atherton, Rand Ryan and Robert Oriol, respectively, provide a proper surrealistic aura to the proceedings.