San Francisco Theater Review: SE LLAMA CRISTINA (Magic Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on February 6, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE SPANISH GHETTO

Octavio Solis’ Se Llama Cristina is a gritty, mind-bending trip.  The main characters, Man and Woman, slip in and out of past, present, and future with varying degrees of lucidity. They and the audience struggle to keep a grasp on what’s real. What is tangible is that Magic Theatre’s well-crafted world premiere production is completely engrossing.

Erin Kohout's Stage and Cinema review of SE LLAMA CRISTINA at Magic Theatre San Francisco

The play begins with Man and Woman trapped in the same dingy apartment, neither of them remembering who they are or how they came to be there, and both having an overwhelming desire to get out.  Inexplicably, the doors and windows are locked.  As the subconscious of each is stirred, deep-seated fears and dreams are uncovered, slowly revealing an identity.  They discover that they must be married and have a baby, but they don’t know where the baby is.  Their suppressed pasts include Man having a prostitute for a mother and Woman being impregnated by her father.

Erin Kohout's Stage and Cinema review of SE LLAMA CRISTINA at Magic Theatre San Francisco

One of the many positive attributes of Octavio Solis’ script is that just as the audience begins to unravel one of the rules of the Man and Woman’s strange reality, the characters have the same thoughts dawn on them. Solis’ script shuffles through Southwestern, Spanish, harsh, and poetic language.  We begin to glean that Man is a writer as some profound, florid phrases slip into his otherwise crude dialect.  Then, Woman, an abused and hardened person, appropriately asks, “What the fuck are you talking about?”  The audience sighs in relief, because Solis has acknowledged that, yes, that language is out of place in this situation, but every element that seems out of place is carefully arranged.

From the grime on the walls, to the askew lampshade, to the way the light from the window projects on the stucco ceiling, the apartment – a symbol of Man and Woman’s imprisonment in their hopeless lives – is artfully detailed by Set Designer Andrew Boyce.  The pre-curtain, rockabilly music eerily contrasted with the unsettling sight of a baby crib placed in the corner of the bleak apartment. Gazing over the set magically prompts the imagination even prior to curtain.

Man and Woman’s fears not only give them identity but also have the power to bend their environment and the laws of physics.  When Woman is nervous about whether Man will make a good father to her child, she thinks about Abel, the abusive husband she left in a different state. Boyce’s set, again, accommodates imagination. Abel waltzes through a wall while Woman is in labor, and Man, bewildered, asks how Abel got there. Abel says, “…she just has to think of me and here I be.”   A surreal world is delivered.

Erin Kohout's Stage and Cinema review of SE LLAMA CRISTINA at Magic Theatre San Francisco

The quick changes between times, places, and realities were masterfully directed by Loretta Greco.  Though the lives of the characters were purposefully ambiguous in the play, the staging and focus of each actor was perfectly clear. In place of a baby, a fried chicken leg lies in the crib. Woman clutches the leg to her chest, rocking and singing to it. A moment that could have easily felt over-staged was delicately directed. Additionally, Burke Brown’s sharp, precisely timed lighting highlights these quick changes. When a crumpled paper ball hits the ground, the space turns from day to night and divides into Man and Woman’s separate homes, which they lived in before they knew each other.  reco has Woman bracing an upstage wall and Man pacing downstage. Brown has darkened Woman’s space with only a cast of light hitting her from the window. She is a prisoner trying to escape undetected. A bare bulb is lit and sinisterly swings at the end of a narrow hallway. When we first see Abel, he is in the shadows because of it; a dark character enhanced by the lighting choice.

Erin Kohout's Stage and Cinema review of SE LLAMA CRISTINA at Magic Theatre San Francisco

Man and Woman, played by Sean San Jose and Sarah Nina Hayon respectively, were as gritty and nuanced as the script. They worked well together as their characters jumped from being strangers to being in love and back again. Rod Gnapp, who plays Abel, was a powerful force, barging into scenes and creating tension that lingered long after he had left the stage.

I applaud Solis’ decision to not end the play in the same way it started.  My expectations were completely subverted. Se Llama Cristina is layered, smart, and intense, something of a cross between a Tarantino film and a Hunter S. Thompson novel, but wholly original. It is a highly recommended trip and an experience that you will want to discuss long after leaving the theater. The lightly attended performance this reviewer saw was due to the Super Bowl. From here on out, no excuses. See this play.

photos by Jennifer Reiley

Se Llama Cristina
Magic Theatre
scheduled to end on February 24, 2013
for tickets, call 415-441-8822 or visit Magic Theatre

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