Octavio Solis was Dallas' homecoming king last week.
Most of the people in the packed house at the Arts District Theater for his play Santos & Santos knew him when he lived here, pretended to know him, or were friends with someone who knew him. Teachers from the Arts Magnet School where he taught, old friends who used to hang with him in Deep Ellum (when Deep Ellum was Deep Ellum), and other supporters provided the most excited and gracious audience I have ever been a part of at DTC.
(If the usual jaded theatergoers were there, they were hidden in the line to the bar. Except for the joker whose cellular went off and would not cease or desist during a particularly intense scene. I'm sure he's a subscriber.)
So all in all it was a forgiving crowd, but as things turned out there wasn't much to forgive. The son of Mexican immigrants who moved to El Paso, the playwright is currently obsessed with the underbelly of the American Dream. But Solis was living his own American Dream that night, and I bet it was sweet as honey.
Santos & Santos is a pungent, provocative play that has burst onto the DTC stage much the way artistic director Richard Hamburger said it would. There are some problems: Act II begins messily after a tight, soaring first act. The transformation of the central character from good to evil is somewhat inexplicable, while a few other characters are some gross cross between Fox's Married with Children and the film Natural Born Killers. As usual, it is hard to hear some of the actors in the Arts District Theater's cavernous setting. And the end is a tad anticlimactic.
So Solis has a little more work to do. Big deal.
Santos is an ambitious work filled with hard, beautiful, and profane language. It is not surprising that Solis, like Eric Overmyer, once wrote poetry. Sometimes I voluntarily stopped breathing for a few seconds so I could better hear the monologues of the three brothers.
The story of Santos is told like a parable. Tomas (deftly played by Al Espinosa) is the "good" brother who returns to his brothers' law firm, Santos & Santos. He finds the criminal defense firm reeking with corruption--drugs, money laundering, and racketeering. His decision to narc on his brothers, Fernie (the tragicomic highlight of the show, played by Tim Perez) and Mike (Richard Chaves), is the beginning of the family's own apocalypse. Of course Solis makes it clear that the family sealed its doom a long time ago by buying into the American Dream--outlaw-style.
Mike, the ruthless leader of the firm, says it all when he's in custody on drug racketeering charges. Why has he been involved in the most heinous of crimes, including murder? So his kids can go to good schools. So they can eat steak, not pinto beans.
"Mexicanos! Pochos! Hear what I say!" Mike says fervently, feverishly. "Give up your Virgen, go Scientology, and listen to the Beach Boys! Dye your hair blonde and sin no more!
Solis' dark, rapturous look at the immigrant experience is not something you'll easily forget.
Jeff Bush has created a competent, sometimes moving, one-man piece on Vincent Van Gogh called Vincent: The Heart of a Madman. The work is the first of two one-acts by the 11th Street Theatre Project called Odd Numbers.
Bush, who offered a strong performance last season as the social worker in 11th Street's tour de force, Keeping Tom Nice, dials up the intensity again for this role, which he based on Vincent's letters to his brother, Theo.
I might have expected more from this project if it wasn't billed as a work-in-progress (Bush has been tinkering with it on and off for five years). The performer wants to hone the work and tour it through the schools--and it is ready for that.
Vincent is a loving tribute to a master. (I like that Bush speaks easily about Van Gogh's philosophy of painting: "I used to think, show the peasant by painting the whole man--now I know to paint only his boots.") But the one act is also pretty predictable in its setting and progression. Some episodes, like when Van Gogh cuts off his ear, would seem hackneyed to stage audiences, yet aren't explained well enough for children or even teenagers.
In some respects the work is an "odd number"--a strange choice for a theater project, because it is geared to educate. And as a theatrical event, it comes up a little short.
I feel about Vincent Van Gogh the way I do about Sylvia Plath. Surround me with their art, yes. But leave their lives alone; I know too much already. Their souls won't rest until we stop picking over their psyches.
Vincent, however, was a joy compared to Israel Horovitz's Stage Directions. The second one-act (the two run through this weekend at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Dallas) was a horrid drone. I was in thespian purgatory--not because of the acting or the directing, which sometimes bordered on superb. But Horovitz's play is a self-indulgent exercise that punishes actors. Like performing scales on the piano, painting with your right hand when you're left-handed, or writing "I will not walk on the salt-water ice" 500 times, it should be conducted in the privacy of one's own home.
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The playwright had the bright idea of writing an entire one-act with stage directions only--no dialogue. (What was he thinking?) So each actor has to say things like: Ruth makes three odd steps back before running into the table. She turns, quickly, opens the scotch bottle, pours a glass, and drains it. Richard stares at her disapprovingly. She stares back. Richard removes his sock and plays with foot...I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea. The first several lines are funny. Then you realize that Horovitz has you boxed into this routine for the next hour.
If that's not depressing enough, the characters are mourning their parents' deaths. None of them talk to each other because there is no dialogue. (It should be the other way around, but it feels like no one talks to each other because the playwright is obsessed with using only stage directions.) So they stare, drink, sit, get hostile, throw things, stain things, and remove the black drape to look fondly at a grotesquely oversized photo of their parents.
The play is sometimes funny, but mostly I was restless, waiting for my sentence to be over. Instead I watched three talented actors (Steve Westerheide, Emily Courtney, and Moira Wilson) wallow in a masturbatory text. I was particularly taken by Courtney's expressive face, lush copper hair, and general transcendence over the material.
In a macabre twist, the text turns from dark comedy to raging tragedy with Courtney's final, desperate act of self-mutilation. It was sheer horror, and she had little or no warm-up for it. Yet she pulled it off convincingly, to her credit. The audience sat in a sickened, horrified hush. Let's hope we see more of her, as well as Wilson and Westerheide, in better material.