Take a play that burns with ambition, volatile language, and ideas; cast it with an exceptional ensemble of actors; let it pulse with passion on an operatic scale; then compress it into a tiny space (the 50-seat New Langton Arts Theater on Folsom Street) and watch it work. The recent revival of Octavio Solis' Santos & Santos, presented by a new consortium named, appropriately enough, Campo Santo (in association with Thick Description and directed by TD's Tony Kelly) is just such a production. It's an evening that takes off at a gallop and stops for nothing -- including, from time to time, dramatic development, but more on that later.
Santos & Santos begins with the homecoming of Tomas (Sean San Jose Blackman), youngest son and newest member of the Santos family law firm. Fresh-faced, romantic, and unabashedly idealistic, Tomas returns to his native El Paso after a stint in San Diego where he's been prosecuting illegal aliens, whose only crime, it seems to him, has been their Mexican descent. Guided by the voice of his deceased father, who created the family fortune from a modest furniture business, and by what Tomas sees as his own crimes against "La Raza," he joins his two older brothers, Mike (Michael Torres) and Fernie (Luis Saguar) in what appears to be a thriving practice. He naively believes they have ceased a lucrative drug trafficking operation, and that their very public display of generosity to Latino charities is legitimate. Appalled at what's really going on -- cocaine using and dealing on a huge scale -- and prodded by a white judge (James Carpenter) who expertly manipulates his guilt, Tomas tips off the feds and thwarts the latest deal. He also inadvertently causes death, imprisonment, and, almost as an afterthought, the family's ruination.
Santos contains distinct echoes of another dynastic epic -- The Godfather -- in which the youngest son tries to remain pure and to stay above the unsavory doings of his kin. But as overblown and testosterone-driven as Solis' script is, it does not indulge in the same sort of glamorization of crime, nor does it reward evil.
What brings Tomas down is not some monstrous authority in the person of the state, the government, or the white race in general. Nor does he succumb to corruption a la Michael Corleone. What brings him down is his own single-minded zeal. He casts his lot with his brothers but is unable either to join them wholeheartedly or to free himself of rigid idealism. He indulges Hamlet-like in pensive considerations of just how one might "remake the past" while wondering at the difference between "my brothers' law and the law of the land."
Tomas seems intended as a poster boy for immigrant rights, but the play is not so simple-minded. At the outset he is bursting with passionate rhetoric that divides the world neatly into good (Latino) and evil (white) portions. But the irony for Tomas is that his idealism does not arise from love of his people or even from love of family; it is inextricably connected to what he sees as the purity of law. And no matter how hard he tries, he cannot reconcile his own deeds or those of his brothers with the cold, hard light of justice. What changes is not Tomas' view of the world and its corrupting forces; what changes is his position relative to that world. He can't beat the enemy, so he becomes it. It's a fascinating twist on classical tragedy.
The world Solis and the Santos company create is thick with evil. Mike and Fernie assume that their faithful flunky, Comacho (Hansford Prince), has betrayed them, and so they hire psychotic hit man Casper T. Willis (Brian Keith Russell) to deal with him. That Willis does so in an unspeakably horrible manner leaves Tomas breathless with shock. (It seems not to affect his brothers at all.) Willis is head of an equally squalid family: He's married to a former Las Vegas hooker, Peggy (Denise Balthrop), and his underage stepdaughter, Felicia (Susan Raab), behaves like an oversexed nightmare of the Christian right.
The pace of the play is breakneck, as though the playwright's ideas have galloped off on their own, heedless of who or what they might trample en route to the grim and inexorable ending. Characters don't really develop -- Solis seems afraid they might have ideas of their own which could run counter to the battle plan he's drawn. Instead they take positions: There's the Hit Man, the Hooker, and the Wayward Teen-Ager. Mike's wife, Nena (Dena Martinez), could be a stand-in for Imelda Marcos, with her closet full of shoes. And Fernie is a shameless cliche of Latino machismo.
Solis excludes no one in this all-out effort to drive home his point about the absolute nature of corruption. Characters apparently equipped with functioning moral centers -- such as Pamela (Karen Amano), the Santos' efficient secretary -- drop their scruples without the slightest warning and merrily join the evil doings.
As weary as we may get of the high-pitched rant, we're never bored. Kelly's impassioned direction thrusts the play forward like a theatrical tidal wave. His pacing is brisk but not rushed, allowing this marvelous ensemble to deliver performances that are emotionally genuine and informed by surprising subtlety. Blackman, Torres, and Saguar are simply outstanding as the brothers Santos, and Carpenter lends enormous complexity and power to the racist Judge Benton.
As characters the women don't stand a chance, but as performers they remain undaunted by all the virility around them and manage to make their considerable presences felt. As Nena, Mike's shoe-loving wife strung out on the good life in America, Martinez exhibits the sort of fragility and strength associated with porcelain china. I was also moved by Maria Candelaria's Vicky, who has settled for a loveless marriage to Fernie and an unlimited supply of cocaine, but who still carries a torch for Tomas and memories of a romantic evening long ago.
Santos & Santos runs through Aug. 18.