Soul for sale

And on the subject of turning an unwieldy performance space into a suitable showcase for theater, I have to say that Teatro Dallas artistic director Cora Cardona and her design crew have made me a believer in the potential of that shoebox of a "converted" rehearsal space that resides in the basement of The Majestic Theatre, currently the lair for our city's reigning box-office beast, the Dallas Summer Musicals. Cardona could probably pitch a tent in a downtown parking lot and make it her completely passionate arena where life and death fight it out and neither succumbs quietly. She, set designer Nick Brethauer, and lighter Jeff Hurst have shoved the audience right up into the faces of the actors with their 1999 Day of the Dead production, The Devil's Sonata. They probably didn't have a choice in the Majestic basement's Experimental Theater, but sitting close enough to see rivulets of sweat meander down a performer's painted forehead has never bothered me.

And the proximity works well for director Cardona's translation of Alberto Miralles Grancha's Faustian comedy, a script spilling over with Important Ideas and therefore never containing any of them long enough to make us feel we've covered much philosophical territory. If The Devil's Sonata were staged in a larger space, it would probably seem terribly portentous, precisely because the show makes so many stabs at deep questions ("Does the soul get more sustenance from peace or chaos? Are writers and actors evading the important social issues of their time by making a purist insistence on sticking to the classics? Is theater an escape from or a confrontation with reality?") but only breaks the surface skin of each. In the end, it's a small supernatural comedy full of brainy, not terribly consequential banter, and Cardona has wisely guided her actors to treat it as such.

Scott Latham plays an actor who is obsessed with the role of Faust and has been hailed as "the greatest stage genius of our time," but he is simply "lost in literature" to the Spirit (Frank Mendez), a demon who's just itching to get the man to sign over his soul. Sitting atop the pinnacle of his artistic accomplishments, the Faustian actor is roiling with boredom and contempt for much of the rest of humanity, especially his "stupid" girlfriend Isabel (Susanna Guzman), who also happens to be his leading lady. This overachiever seems to be yearning for some higher beauty, but his balloon hopes are constantly burst by the Spirit, who informs him that Eden was dull, God made Satan to escape heavenly monotony with a little devastation on their battleground earth, and above all, the conflict between the flesh and the spirit is the true nutrition for the soul, not some earnest celestial pledge toward purity.

Cardona keeps The Devil's Sonata rapid-fire, with shelf-rattling, smoke-pouring, light-flickering special effects and a snappy pair of comic sidekick performances by Latham and Mendez. Theater artists and regular audiences are likely to get a kick out of watching these two toss barbs at each other, if only because they've always suspected that the only match for Old Scratch in the departments of egotism and temperamentalism might just be a stage actor. The problematic presence at the performance I saw was Susanna Guzman, the passive girlfriend who becomes a vessel for gay flirtation and demonic tantrums whenever she is possessed by Mendez's character. Latham and Mendez were springy and rat-a-tat-tat in their delivery, whereas Guzman seemed to be acting in an entirely different production, one with more traditionally extravagant, Teatro-style acting. At times she's too much for this tiny space and this little comedy, other times not enough. I happen to be a fan of Guzman's work, so I blame this as much on director Cardona, who hasn't seemed to have helped the co-star display dual personalities without making the stage seem crowded. Some craftiness is required to make Isabel something more than she is on the page, I'll warrant. But upon possession, where a performer would presumably bite into the juicy meat of this role, Guzman becomes boisterous and bawdy where archness, slyness, and sexiness would have completed a tight, slick three-part harmony in this Sonata.