Wide awake

Carlo Alban and Zabryna Guevara can never quite get their bearings in the shifting geography, ethnicity, and international policy of Dreamlandia.

In two separate moments of release from the steamrollering epic plot turns of Dreamlandia, offered as the main-stage production of Dallas Theater Center's Big D Festival of the Unexpected, onstage characters directly implicate audiences. They spot us, identify us, and accuse us. The first happens when a supposedly retarded young Latino (Felix Solis) who accompanies his sister into a strange land peers, pop-eyed, over the ticket-buyers and announces with awe: "An ancient tribe of white people!"

The second happens when a silver-handgun-toting Latina drug baroness (Dolores Godinez) in a smart blue dress suit, after explaining how Americans benefit from cheap Mexican labor, the drug trade, and liberalized intra-continental relationships between business and governmental officials, says: "I'm you bitch? mah bitch."

As helmed by DTC artistic director Richard Hamburger, this quarrelsome world premiere of former Dallas Arts Magnet High teacher Octavio Solis' script seemingly knows whom it will play to, at least in this venue--Anglos. All joking about affluent white Dallasites aside, any arts institution that is widely perceived as "for white people" can tell you the most generous minority outreach efforts are often roundly ignored: Reaching out works only if somebody reaches back. Still, I wonder whether Hamburger should have pilfered Teatro Dallas' subscriber list of middle- and upper-class, ultra politically aware Hispanics. It's not that Dreamlandia is more relevant to Latinos than to Anglos; it's that the show is, first and foremost, a caustic comedy with tragic elements. And the palefaces who populated the Thursday-night performance I attended often seemed too uncomfortable to laugh, as if at times they weren't sure whether to feel guilty, insulted, or mocked.

As it happens, there's plenty of blame to go around in this production. But I suggest audiences spend less time following the direction of pointed fingers and more time marveling how Solis has applied a classical template--in this case, Pedro Calderon de la Barca's 1636 Life Is a Dream--to a 21st-century international reality and enriched both. Acronyms like NAFTA, INS, and DEA sail by us in a daily, if often ineffectual, media barrage, but Solis spells them out and links them with irrefutable authority to the lives of individuals. If it's nothing more than an illuminating study in how stuff as obtuse and theoretical as international economics and illegal drug policy shape our personal destinies, then Dreamlandia succeeds majestically in making us all feel like citizens of the world.

The fellow in whom all these forces converge is named Lazaro (Carlo Alban). He's Solis' Caliban, a man-animal chained in a hole on a tiny island in the Rio Grande. He was banished there at birth by his father Celestino (Geno Silva), a drug runner and paranoid official with the international electronics corporation NEXTEL who fears an astrological prophecy. Lazaro may shit himself as if he's still a baby, but he has super-sophisticated consumer fantasies because his only experience with other people is through glossy periodicals, especially women's magazines. All that changes when a real woman, Blanca (Zabryna Guevara), wanders too close to his hole while on a quest to avenge the death of her mother Dolores (Godinez), the midwife who delivered Lazaro and was forced to swim the Rio Grande at gunpoint where she drowned (but rose again as a specter who will haunt her killer in various guises). The meeting of Blanca and Lazaro propels both into a Dreamlandia, where law, nationality, ethnicity, commerce, gender, and family combine in ever more phantasmagoric experiences to perplex everyone.

Director Richard Hamburger keeps assured control over the interlocking relationships and potentially convoluted themes in Solis' script. Indeed, he should be congratulated for how much frightening sense this show makes, considering I could take up this entire page with just plot synopsis and character description. Yet the wide scope of his mastery over this material sometimes means he colludes in some of Solis' clumsier gestures. We don't really need to be told how American capitalism exploits poor Mexican laborers, since we're shown with such vivid onstage interactions. Yet Solis lectures us with direct audience addresses one or two times too many, and Hamburger goes so far as to include a giant slide show of documentary images that cheapens what Solis has captured so fluently with language.

At several points during the performance, I was reminded broadly of Tony Kushner's two-part Angels in America. That's a comparison intended to be compliment and criticism. Both works dramatize the author shoving his fist into a very muddy pool and creating ripples that expand through the articulate emotionalism of classical literature (staged to the point where the slightest slight is an epic challenge). Both touch on the building urgency of mass media coverage and give audiences the shock of witnessing one angry political voice cleanly, clearly, and poetically synthesizing opinions that have been piling up for years in fringe theater, film, and journalism. Of course, much of what is striking about both Solis' and Kushner's work is their willingness to get in ticket-buyers' faces. It also is their weakness. When new villains replace the current crop, the topical portion of the Dreamlandia's assault will become hackneyed, and nostalgists will dredge the lyrical moments for future preservation. And theatergoers who resent being forced to ponder controversy (especially anything they might be implicated in) snicker, feeling vindicated when the expiration date turns over.

Two things are obvious: Despite its intermittent missteps, Dreamlandia is just about the most pertinent (nah, prescient) stage piece you could see anywhere in the United States now, and Hamburger is a gutsy sonuvabitch for championing the gloomy, torrid, operatic scale on which it is staged by Dallas Theater Center. Octavio Solis is undoubtedly a theater prophet for the way in which he gathers still-evolving political perspectives and presents them in a thorny bouquet to the cause of art; further development of this remarkable piece, if mindful of the headlines, should keep it important for years to come. If he can just do what the most revived writers somehow manage--consistently limn an eloquent but appropriately anarchic message to the most suitably impatient audience--Solis will enter history. With canny and continuous sympathizers like Hamburger and DTC, I'd say the man's got a shot.

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