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Review: Luna Stage's fantasy 'Marisol' by José Rivera

 Photo: Nehassaiu deGannes (L) and Cynthia Fernandez (R)
Photo: Nehassaiu deGannes (L) and Cynthia Fernandez (R)
Photo by Niegel Smith

Reviewed by Ruth Ross (njartsmaven,com)

When Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the originator of "magical realism," died a few days ago, he unfortunately left no Cliff Notes that would render the quintessential Latin American literary genre clear to me. I have always thought of magical realism as a mash-up of realism and fantasy—to the detriment of one to the other. It certainly requires that the audience suspend their disbelief, big time.

As described in the advertising copy and the program, Luna Stage's final production of the season, José Rivera's Marisol, had me scratching my head in confusion as to what was real and what, fantasy, but upon reflection, I realize that the play has quite a bit to say about the world we live in today.

Set in early 1990s New York City, Marisol recounts the story of a young Latina—a graduate of Fordham University (Phi Beta Kappa) who has a job in science publishing and is, as she puts it, "middle class"—forced to navigate a world left in disarray when her guardian angel leaves her to fight a battle of biblical proportion. Along the way, she encounters drug addicts, mentally disturbed homeless persons, Nazi skinheads and babies born addicted to drugs who have died soon after birth. In this post-apocalyptic landscape, coffee and apples are extinct, the financial world is in crisis, milk tastes salty, buildings have vaporized, north has become south, a foot is 14 inches long—nothing is as it once seemed.

To further complicate matters, Marisol Perez has been named as a murder victim in the newspapers, bludgeoned to death with a golf club on a Bronx street. Is the woman we see onstage a ghost, or is she a real person, albeit one who is in the throes of a nightmare? Rivera does not answer that question; the mixing of the real and the unreal are the basis for magical realism, so we are forced to look for deeper meanings to this puzzle.

However fantastical the plot—and the landscape (which resembles that of those end of the world films so beloved of 18-35 year old males—the acting onstage at the little black box theater is very real. Cynthia Fernandez shines as Marisol, convincingly conveying the character's confusion and fear. Onstage for every minute and speaking reams of dialogue, Fernandez never loses her character's focal point: She is a true innocent adrift and aghast at what she finds in this future world. Emma O'Donnell as her friend June and Debbie Bernstein as a Woman with Furs depict the burned-out souls of people suffering from the ills of this upside-down universe; Bernstein is especially poignant as a woman hit by the credit crisis. Her wild-eyed look is absolutely riveting and scary.

Christopher Kelly does a splendid job in multiple roles: zany as the guy wielding a golf club and spouting nonsense in the subway (who hasn't seen one of them in the New York underground?); screaming as the Ice Cream man who hasn't gotten paid for a job he performed in a film with Robert DeNiro; wild as the mental wreck Lenny, June's brother; and touching as Scar Tissue, the man badly burned and still looking for the skin he lost. Although these characters all appear to be variations on the same theme, Kelly delineates each one as a separate entity.

Nehassaiu deGannes has a small role as Marisol's Guardian Angel, complete with wings, but this heavenly being appears to have lost her way, too, as she seeks to dethrone a God she thinks has gone senile and replace Him with another more competent to deal with Earth's ills.

Production values are as solid as the acting. Niegel Smith's steady direction (photo right/see video below) keeps the action moving from one end of the theater to another; the stage runs between two banks of seats, encompassing various venues where action takes place. Arnulfo Maldonado's post-apocalyptic set design, Jorge Arroyo's atmospheric lighting, Erik T. Lawson's otherworldly sound and Deborah Caney's costumes transport us through time and space to a magical place while remaining rooted in reality.

In 1993, Marisol conjures up a world that has, in many ways, come to pass. Homelessness is still a problem, especially for returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and those affected by the recession of 2008. We read stories in our news papers about homeless people attacked and beaten by gangs of marauding youths. Our food is being affected if not by salt, then by pesticides and antibiotics. Crime may be down in New York City, but post-911, we live in fear of terrorism and mass shootings.

Marisol shows us the consequences of unheeded warnings and, as Artistic Director Cheryl Katz writes in her program notes, "[We] find ourselves at a point where things that might once have been thought unthinkable now reign as the norm. . .the future conjured up in Marisol has come to pass." A sobering reality, and if it takes some magic to drive home the point, so be it. Marisol may confuse you a bit, but it will make you think—perhaps enough to act.

Marisol will be performed through May 11 at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange. There will be a talkback after the April 24th performance. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.395.5551 or visit online at www.lunastage.org.