“I am so excited to see this play,” said the smiling young woman next to me Monday night as she nestled into her seat at Trinity Rep’s Sarah and Joseph Dowling Theater moments before the beginning of “Marisol,” the José Rivera play on stage through June 16. “My roommate’s mother just saw it and said it was crazy.”
“Crazy good or crazy bad?,” I asked her.
Crazy good, she said. Crazy good.
I suppose crazy good is one way of describing the extraordinary play that is “Marisol.” Let me also add magical, wild, primal, head-scratching, timely, eye-opening, thought-provoking, political, well-directed, perfectly-cast, intriguing, compelling, unforgettable, epic, dreamlike, puzzling, humorous, hopeful, loud, fantastic and wonderful to the mix.
“Marisol” is a big play, an enormous play — it’s an experience, a happening, an extravaganza — featuring characters who are both phantasmagoric and familiar: a homeless man (Brian McEleney) who has lost his skin and drives a motorized wheelchair; a young woman wearing fur coats and sunglasses (Jackie Davis); a ghoulish man wielding a gold club (Mauro Hantman) and a man eating an ice cream cone (Joe Wilson, Jr.).
The magnificent Octavia Chavez-Richmond stars as Marisol, the young Puerto Rican-American woman at the center of the story. Chavez-Richmond, who struts around the stage — much of the time wearing high heels and a stunning red and blue vertically-striped pantsuit — has a remarkable ability to change from sweet, innocent girl to enraged, gritty woman in a nanosecond. And she’s funny. There is lots of humor in “Marisol,” which is directed (extraordinarily) by Brian Mertes. There’s also beautiful language. Gorgeous, poetic, beautiful language.
One morning Marisol awakens in her Bronx apartment to find her world in chaos. Her friend is missing and her guardian angel (Mia Ellis flies down from above thanks to a pullied harness) has taken off her wings and declared war on God — an old and senile white male god who is dying and “taking the rest of us with him.” In this apocalyptic new world, apples are extinct, unwise consumers who have exceeded their credit card limits are sent to torture centers, neo-Nazi skinheads roam the streets and the moon has disappeared.
As Marisol journeys through rubble searching for her friend June (Angela Brazil is, as always, brilliant), she encounters the characters mentioned above, often accompanied by the beautiful but haunting viola playing of Music Director Ashley Frith.
Then there’s June’s lunatic brother Lenny (Charlie Thurston is terrific) who begins the play wearing bunny ears and hopping around the stage and ends up pregnant and giving birth.
Look for an abundance of biblical and Roman Catholic symbolism; Marisol and others regularly bless themselves by making the sign of the cross; twice we hear the child’s prayer/nursery rhyme, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless this bed I lies upon” recited; there are devotional candles surrounding Marisol’s bed; and of course, there is the Cross.
It is helpful to know the following things before you see “Marisol,” which I urge you to do:
Once, when Rivera was a young man living in the Bronx and working in publishing, he was confronted, late at night while riding home on the subway, by a crazed man wielding a golf club. Another time, when walking through Greenwich Village, he was confronted by a young man holding a tire iron in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other.
Among the many after-affects (for me) of experiencing “Marisol” has been the desire to know more about Rivera and his other works. I’ll admit to being semi-obsessed. He was born in Puerto Rico in 1955 and moved to Long Island with his family when he was a 5-year-old. He attended public schools, was gobsmacked by a production of “Rumpelstiltskin” in grade school, and enjoyed watching “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” on TV. He studied Ibsen, Shakespeare and Molière, and according to an interview in the L.A. Times, cites two events as helping him to find his own voice: “He read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ and he saw Sam Shepard’s ‘Buried Child.’” Marquez would later become his mentor. He was the first Puerto Rican screenwriter to be nominated for an Oscar and has won two Obie Awards.
The set, designed by Eugene Lee; the costumes, designed by Cait O’Connor; the lighting, designed by Cha See; and the sound (there are subway trains and crying babies), designed by Broken Chord; all deserve mention.
Lest you think “Marisol” is a miasma of death and despair, consider the final lines:
“It’s the first day of the new history. Oh God. What light, what possibilities, what hope.”
“Marisol” runs long, but it’s definitely a must-see. I have a feeling theatergoers will be talking about this production of “Marisol” for years to come.