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Angels in America

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Cloud Tectonics

Goodman Theatre and Teatro Vista

at the Goodman Theatre Studio

When did Los Angeles--that sprawling, auto-choked, culturally diverse, ethnically divided, malled, and suburbanized city--become model and metaphor for all America? I suspect it happened sometime in the late 70s, when so many SoCal ideas infected the popular culture: worship of the body, fascination with celebrities, diminished respect for substance and glorification of image, the irrational belief that we'd all be better off if only we cut taxes and social services. At any rate, halfway through the first act of Reagan's tragicomedy it became apparent that LA had replaced New York as the American city, and the media reaction to the Rodney King riots, the flood, the earthquake, and the O.J. mess confirmed that fact, if any confirmation were needed. Suddenly, every awful thing that happened in La-la-land was treated on the tube as yet another sign of the end of the world as we know it.

Jose Rivera's Cloud Tectonics, a magical-realist romance, is set in this apocalyptic LA of the mind, with its long nights of speeding cars, gunshots, and screaming sirens. But in this beautiful, moving play Rivera is after something more resonant than yet another glib commentary on America in the last decade of the last century of the second millennium AD: he uses the psychically charged world of LA as a lens through which he can examine the deeper workings of the soul.

The play concerns a likable nobody, Anibal de la Luna, who works as a baggage handler at American Airlines. Driving home one day he takes pity on a poor, bedraggled, pregnant girl standing out in what the media has already dubbed the "storm of the century." He takes her to his humble "Craftsman home," and over the course of a dreamlike evening slowly realizes how special she is--and not just because her name, Celestina del Sol, has such heavenly implications.

Already you can see how steeped in symbolism the play is: the City of Angels, American Airlines, the humble craftsman's home, pregnant homeless woman (see "Madonna"), a man with "of the moon" for a last name who falls for a woman whose last name means "of the sun." Then there's the apocalyptic setting: we can all feel in our bones that the big one is coming, the one that will level LA. Rivera has always loved to pile his plays high with meaning.

In The Promise, his adaptation of the Yiddish classic The Dybbuk, about a woman possessed by the spirit of her dead fiance, Rivera was not content to transpose the cabalistic mysticism of the original into a Latino Catholic setting. Placing the protagonists in a house on the edge of a toxic waste dump, Rivera ensured that his heroine would be haunted not only by her fiance but also by an industrial witches' brew of dioxin and pesticides and heavy metals. This addition, though intriguing, really added nothing to an already rich story.

Likewise in his flawed and fragmentary Marisol Rivera took a moving tale about a mousy, lonely Latina office worker and junked it up with a lot of metaphysical mumbo jumbo, including an angel in tennis shoes, references to a battle in heaven, and intimations of the approaching millennium. Here Rivera didn't seem to trust us to discover the character's spirituality on our own, but by reminding us so often that his story had deep, otherworldly implications, he made it lose its resonance and power.

In Cloud Tectonics Rivera shows more faith in his audience--and in his own ability as a storyteller. Though this work too is thickly encrusted with symbols, it's also moving at its most basic level: man meets pregnant woman, man kisses pregnant woman, man loses pregnant woman...etc. Cloud Tectonics can also be read as a meditation on erotic power--when Celestina and Anibal are together, time literally stops--and as a tale of the spiritual journey that begins for Anibal with Celestina's entrance into his life.

Celestina, who never ages and who takes years to give birth, is part angel, part anima, part potent metaphor for Anibal's unconscious. Rivera is often described as a magical realist in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, yet with Cloud Tectonics he also reveals himself a master of a much older, no less magical form: the medieval allegory. But like Terry Gilliam's films Brazil and The Fisher King, Rivera's work has a very modern poignancy.

Anibal, excellently played by Mark D. Espinoza, is an average joe so weighed down by his work and empty life he doesn't even know how much he yearns for something more. Unlike his angry, ambitious younger brother Nelson (played with understated power and fury by Anthony Diaz-Perez), nice guy Anibal is too numb to care that he's pissing his life away. Celestina, especially as played by the simultaneously sweet, ethereal, and sexy Maricela Ochoa, awakens something in him. But as befits our hectic age, before Anibal can satisfy his romantic/sexual/spiritual needs or even realize how deep they are, she's gone. As Nelson had quipped earlier, "What's life? A fucking blink."

The next time we see Anibal he's 40 years older, in bed, close to death. He's not bitter, but he does seem to have slipped back into numb obliviousness. Then out of nowhere Celestina reappears. Mysteriously, she's only a couple years older than she'd been at the beginning of the play and wears a chic, silvery outfit. But once again she awakens something in Anabel and transforms his life.

In this brief, wonderful epilogue Rivera achieves everything he's attempted in earlier works. This time his rich symbolism doesn't seem forced or at war with the plot. Instead, symbol and story flow together to create a transcendent ending at once intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Even Rivera's decision to set his play in the City of Angels feels right, despite LA's current status as an emblem of the tectonic shifts in America's soul.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.

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