Admittedly, I love a big swing.
Keep that in mind as you read this review.
Every so often, the folks at Trinity Rep like to remind us that when it comes to innovative theater in RI, they set the bar a long time ago with cutting-edge work and fascinating takes on classical and contemporary work alike.
Nowadays, however, it’s a little harder to put on a show that really challenges audiences without risking a few dropped subscriptions, but what’s happening onstage at Trinity right now is nothing short of remarkable when you consider how difficult it must be to exist as an institution the way Trinity does — with all the financial obligation that implies — and still turn out what has got to be one of the boldest productions of the year with Jose Rivera’s Marisol.
You kind of have to love them for saving a show like this until the end of the season when most of us are wrapping up our theatrical year with smaller and more intimate fanfare.
The play follows Marisol, a young woman, who escapes an attack on the subway only to find out from her guardian angel that she will no longer be protected because a war is coming where the angels plan on dethroning god. This war finds its way to New York City, which quickly becomes an urban hellscape fantasia, and Marisol finds herself navigating peril after peril as she encounters a roster of complex characters who embody violence, beauty, resilience and complexity.
It’s difficult to watch Rivera’s play without noticing all the similarities to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. In fact, if you do a little Googling, you’ll find that critics had a grand old time comparing the two pieces and found Marisol to be lacking when compared with Kushner’s masterpiece. Their main gripe seemed to be that Marisol lacked the narrative ingenuity of Angels, but — and forgive me for criticizing many critics much smarter than I am — it would seem to me that not recognizing that Marisol has no real interest in a linear narrative does a great disservice to the play.
Luckily, we have the genius known as Brian Mertes — in my opinion, the best director currently working in the state — to show us exactly what play we’re supposed to be watching.
Marisol is a collage. It’s fragmented in the best way. It’s linear only in that time moves forward in it, but it’s far from having anything resembling a traditional narrative, and Mertes embraces this by creating moving portraits onstage that evoke something like a MoMA installation and keep an active audience member on their toes for the duration of the production.
As soon as you walk into the downstairs Dowling theater, you know you’re in for a ride — maybe even literally. Eugene Lee’s set has a VW Beetle prominently featured, and everything you see is rather askew and slightly elevated. This atmosphere is sustained throughout the show as you’re transported into a world that’s ethereal, dramatic and intense. Mertes wants you to see the skin and bones of the staging, and he doesn’t fall into the trap of letting Rivera’s gorgeous and lyrical language do all the work for him. Instead, he takes it to creative extremes while still honoring the poetry and pathos of Marisol and her journey.
It’s fitting that another of Trinity’s truly great productions this year — Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey — featured a character traversing the naked and nefarious American landscape.
As Marisol, Octavia Chavez-Richmond turns in a tour de force performance. Her portrayal is nuanced while still passionate enough to create a dynamic protagonist filled with equal parts strength and subtlety. It would be easy to let a character like Marisol use up all her emotional reserves early in the play, but Chavez-Richmond and Mertes find a balance that brings the character to the brink multiple times without breaking her or allowing us to take our eyes off her. Chavez-Richmond was also seen in Fuente Ovejuna, and hopefully we’ll see her again at Trinity very soon.
And while we’re talking about people I could watch for hours, Jackie Davis, who was also in black odyssey, is absolutely brilliant once again. Her most substantial scene in the play comes while playing a character innocuously named “Woman with Furs,” but it is both a searing and darkly hysterical turn. Combined with her previous appearance at Trinity, I think a case should be made for having her become a permanent part of their acting company.
Speaking of the acting company, Marisol features a few of its members doing some of their best work. Angela Brazil as June has the biggest arc to pull off as she travels from put-together working woman to unhinged warrior in Earth’s new war. Brazil’s always been able to do more with her eyes than most actors could do with a flamethrower, and here she’s built a character who becomes unrecognizable to us over a mere two hours. It’s an unforgettable performance.
Charlie Thurston is also at the top of his game as Lenny, an unpredictable and unsettling man who insists on a connection with Marisol the way stalkers fixate on their victims. In fact, all the men in the show, including an alleged extra from Taxi Driver looking for his residual check, played for all its worth by the always stellar Joe Wilson Jr, present some form of a threat to Marisol. An early scene with Mauro Hantman is so tense, I don’t think I took a breath the entire time it was unfolding. Hantman paints his character with an eeriness and precision that is truly masterful, and Brian McEleney as Scar nearly walks away with the show as a man whose lost love happens to be his skin. It seems fitting that while the show was written in the early ’90s, it presents a picture of a divided and dangerous world that is no friend to women, minorities or those who find themselves without privilege to fall back on when the Great War begins. Nothing is safe and there’s nowhere to hide. Early in the play, when Marisol is invited to move in with June, she runs right into Thurston’s Lenny, and it’s clear that there are no havens that men who think of themselves as gods cannot invade, and so, Marisol finds herself back on the street having to fight for every inch of her life.
Once again, the trap would be to set up this production as an anti-POTUS symphony, and it certainly wouldn’t be hard, but Mertes pulls back at all the right places, and allows us to drown in the realization that the nightmare we’re watching could very easily become the nightmare we’re living. At the same time, like Angels, the play is infused with a great deal of hope. Some of its most powerful moments happen in the scenes between Marisol and her guardian angel, played with dignity and grace by company member Mia Ellis. The small yet significant exchanges that happen between the “big” events are what gives the play its marvelous texture.
Rivera clearly isn’t interested in cynicism, and while you may be on the fence about spending an early summer evening watching a play that foretells the Apocalypse, I can’t think of a better way to finish off another season of theater in Rhode Island than with a production that’s suffused with blinding enthusiasm for brash and brave storytelling. Shows like these aren’t just the reason we go to the theater, they’re the reason we have theater.
Trinity Rep closes its 2018-19 season with José Rivera’s Marisol, through June 16. For more information, call the box office at 401-351-4242 or visit trinityrep.com