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It might seem too easy or too cynical to call José Rivera's apocalyptic drama Marisol an indictment of the impending Trump presidency, but the dark 1993 tale — revived by Villanova Theatre, with its first performance on election night — earns extra power through its resonance with current events.
Marisol, played with fierce commitment by Rachel O'Hanlon-Rodriguez, is an innocent bystander, working for a Manhattan publishing company and living in a chaotic Bronx neighborhood with a knife under her pillow. "Why is there a war on children in this city?" she asks her guardian angel (played by Alexandra King) in a dream. "Why are apples extinct? Why are they planning to drop human insecticide on overpopulated areas of the Bronx? Why has the color blue disappeared from the sky?"
Rivera posits a world in which angels abandon their guardianship of humanity to fight a heavenly war. "The universal body is sick," the angel tells Marisol. "God is old and dying and taking the rest of us with Him." Marisol is suddenly alone in a disintegrating society.
While realistic details of her plight move the story forward — she agrees to move in with co-worker June (Laura Barron), but her brother Lenny (Leo Bond) proves an obstacle — director James Ijames's muscular production is more concerned with the play's spiritual issues. Any resemblance to Tony Kushner's Angels in America, which also premiered in 1993, is a meaningful coincidence.
Make connections at your own risk
Is Trump's election the result of God's senility? Let's hope not. Jane dismisses Marisol's concerns as "Roman Catholic bullshit," which might not play well at a major Catholic university (and you've got to admire Villanova Theatre's consistent integrity and courage). The playwright's particular flavor of Magic Realism frankly explores religion's societal role. Rivera also implicates Trumpian unfettered capitalism, particularly regarding crippling credit card debt that makes corporations more important than people, as well as desperate chaos that reveals the worst in people. Roving gangs burn minorities to death. One of the deadly arsonists asks of people different than him, "Why can't they all just go away?"
Villanova's nuanced production boasts Parris Bradley's sprawling set with audience on three sides, which not only suggests New York City's ruin but, along with Jerold R. Forsyth's bold lighting, the supernatural struggles playing out above. Jennifer Povish's fascinating costumes use unconventional textures and asymmetrical shapes to suggest near-future fashions, a subtly beautiful accomplishment when contemporary clothing might have sufficed.
O'Hanlon-Rodriguez's performance is operatic in its range and intensity, particularly at the play's transcendent conclusion, which despite the climactic destruction, ends with the word "hope." For all the twisted darkness of Rivera's vision, something beautiful emerges. The ensemble, mainly graduate students with professional credits, plays material often abstract and unrealistic with a grounded-ness that draws us in.
Villanova's production can be enjoyed and appreciated for its apocalyptic view of American culture separate from the coming Trump Era, but the connections are inescapable. Marisol proves that we experience plays personally, through a cultural and political lens; theater is a mirror, reflecting back to us who we are. I wonder what other plays will merit reconsideration as we probe our new reality.
To read Chris Braak's essay about this show, click here.
What, When, Where
Marisol. By José Rivera. James Ijames directed. Through November 20, 2016 at Villanova Theatre, 800 Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, Pa. (610) 519-7474 or villanovatheatre.org.
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