Under the American dream

Texas playwright Octavio Solis brings muscle to DTC's season

In the long run, Richard Hamburger's success with the Dallas Theater Center will be measured by plays such as Santos & Santos. Written by Texas-born playwright Octavio Solis, Santos is a dark work that explores the underbelly of the American dream through an immigrant crime family.

Hamburger has described the work, which previews on April 27, as "muscular" and "hard-edged." He has said that he selected the play because of the intensely visceral nature of Solis' language.

Santos is the challenging piece by an emerging writer that Hamburger hopes will become the cornerstone of his season. (Making DTC an idea workshop for edgy, poetic young playwrights is part of Hamburger's dream; sprinkling their raw, sinewy works among New York imports is his reality.)

Solis recently spent a break discussing his newest work. The playwright was in the throes of final rehearsals at the Arts District Theater, DTC's alternative space.

"The rehearsal process is going beautifully," Solis said. "We've got a nice ensemble going.

"This is a very economical, very spare, piece," he added. "It's all about the language, and different than a lot of the plays they're accustomed too."

The play turns on an idealistic defense lawyer, Tommy Santos, who returns to his brothers' firm in El Paso only to find they are involved in drug-running and racketeering. Santos is inspired by the true crime story of Texas' Chagra family--which ordered the murder of a federal judge in 1979.

"I wanted to tell a story that was some sort of vessel for my own ambiguous feelings about myself," he said. "Why I feel totally American, and less than that at the same time.

"I wanted to talk about how to be American, you betray your immigrant past. Children of immigrants are so seduced by all things American. They walk the walk and talk the talk...I decided to talk about that in the milieu of a crime family, since crime is a terrific American institution."

Solis, the son of Mexican immigrants who settled in El Paso, has had his work performed at the Deep Ellum Theater Garage in Dallas, INTAR in New York, the Latino Chicago Theater Co., and the San Diego Repertory Theatre, among other venues. As a struggling playwright, the former Big D resident has worked at the Dallas Theater Center, the Arts Magnet High School, and the University of Texas at Dallas.

These days Solis lives and works in the Bay area with his wife and infant daughter. Having worked at the Dallas Theater Center as a graduate student in "indentured servitude," Solis said he still doesn't feel like he's arrived. But he hopes his work will help the audience see the immigrant experience in a new light. "Before I die, promise to betray me," one of his characters says in Santos.

For the immigrant's child to succeed, Solis said, "He must betray his past. It's insidious, unwitting and inevitable."

I decided to take my 76-year-old mother to see New Dances at the MAC in the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. She's usually game for any performance, new and hip, as long as she doesn't have to endure a lot of primal screaming.

Still, maybe I had a different set of expectations than usual; perhaps I was looking for something more aesthetic, less deconstructionist, not quite as post-postmodern. Certainly I was hoping for some dances that were pretty, dancerly. Even beautiful.

I got what I wanted, for a few fleeting moments. But first I had to endure the kind of work that gives modern dance a bad name.

The first short dance, called Choir Practice, seemed endless. Two lovely women with chiseled legs, their sternums showing through translucent skin, sat in their chairs repeating obsessive-compulsive movements that seemed post-industrial in nature, like they were pieces of some automated assembly line. (The piece was performed by Carolyn Pavlik and Llory Wilson, who co-choreographed the piece with Rachel Brumer.)

As they moved mostly their upper bodies in their chairs, Pavlik and Wilson gasped for breath harshly. Each new movement brought a new theatrical gasp. Their gasping was so contagious I soon felt as if I were being suffocated. I wondered how my mother was doing but was afraid to look. I began to daydream about tubercular sanitariums at the turn of the century. I thought of rereading Thomas Mann.

Then I became angry. The people who like this piece are steeped in knowledge of dance and performance art. They titter at the very small jokes set in the choreography, and the self-referential nature of the dance. I think there was a time when I would've liked this dance. But I am too old for small, derivative experiments and a text with oblique associations. ("I chew on thoughts. I taste barnacles.")

I looked at these women's herculean calves and I knew they could dance. They were beautiful, and I wanted them to jump out of their chairs and spin and dance and melt their torsos and jump athletically for me.

My mother, on the other hand, quite liked the piece.
"I thought they were in a car accident, and then hovering above it," she said.

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