This moody tone poem by Jose Rivera, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “The Motorcycle Diaries,” is an ideal example of what might be called the “just … because” play. The fey premise of the drama — about a mysterious woman with the power to stop time in its tracks — is unabashedly enchanting. The two brothers who fall under her magical spell are properly mystified. And the lyric idiom of the language is its own music. But there are limits to the appeal of magic realism, and by failing to provide a key to unlock the fable’s meaning, the play asks to be admired just … because.
Although James Phillip Gates’ physical production is a bit too grounded in the here-and-now reality of contemporary Los Angeles for the purposes of this otherworldly piece, Rivera establishes his apocalyptic vision of the city from the outset. There are raging floods on Fairfax, LAX is closed, bodies are floating down the Los Angeles River and everyone is braced for the Big One to hit.
“That’s L.A. for you — disasters just waiting to happen,” says Anibal de la Luna (an extremely soulful Luis Vega), to the young, visibly pregnant woman he picks up at a bus stop during a torrential rainstorm. “The atmosphere sags from its own toxic heaviness.”
Curiously, these presentiments of impending doom have little impact on Celestina del Sol, who seems oblivious to her surroundings and entirely fixated on finding the man who impregnated her. In Frederique Nahmani’s ethereally lovely reading of the character, this exhausted and disoriented young woman could be an abused wife, a nymph out of water — or the figment of a lonely man’s imagination.
But once in Anibal’s apartment, this fragile creature turns into a sensual woman, seducing her host with both her voluptuous body and the amazing story she has to tell. Between Nahmani’s dreamy perf and the mesmerizing lighting effects supplied by Paul Hackenmueller, it’s easy to believe that Celestina is what she claims to be — a mature 54-year-old woman who has been carrying her unborn child for two years.
“You don’t think I’m strange?” she asks Anibal, who is too lost in her charms to care that she can make clocks stop and time stand still.
Adding drama to this otherwise static mystery are two visits from Anibal’s soldier-brother, Nelson (Julio Rivera, lost in his underwritten part), who also falls under Celestina’s spell. It is only when Nelson returns from war six years later that Anibal begins to realize the power of his otherworldly visitor.
Helmer Gates does a remarkable job of sustaining the enchantment of the mood, and Rivera’s lush language keeps us involved in the love affair that ends, as it must, on a bittersweet note, some 40 years in the future.
But at some point, one does wish for something more than lyricism from the playwright and something less vague in meaning than the futuristic vision of Los Angeles (as “the new capital of the United States”) that comes at the end of the play.
Mating the sun with the moon is a pretty conceit, and stopping the passage of time to make a safe place for lovers is a romantic notion. But aside from that final, rhapsodic vision of L.A. as an urban garden of Eden, Rivera shows little interest in integrating his love story into the larger metaphysical picture of a world gone mad.