Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Underneath all the Latin smolder, this overly serious play might be quite hilarious

The Spanish word "duende" is notoriously untranslatable. Most dictionaries define it both as a fairylike, mythical figure and a concept in art to do with soulfulness, emotional authenticity, and the fuzzy line where pleasure meets pain. But many people agree that experiencing flamenco music or the work of the Andalusian poet-playwright Federico Garcia Lorca is the best way to grasp the idea.

The impenetrability of duende — its relationship to the mystical, abstract realm of feeling — is what gives the concept its power and cultural resonance. But dealing with sensations that are more easily experienced than explained does have its downside. Because we're more accustomed to the spoofy Hollywood version of duende as depicted in movies like The Mask of Zorro and Once Upon a Time in Mexico than the brittle emotions that forged dramas like Yerma and Blood Wedding, it's hard to take duende seriously these days. Unless you're the kind of person who weeps before paintings or performs pirouettes till your toes bleed, you can't pass up the comic potential of Lorca's own attempts to describe duende, like: "I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: 'the duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.'" When I hear these words, all I can think of is the aging tango guru with the faux-Spanish accent in the campy Australian movie Strictly Ballroom.

Swaggering in, matadorlike, against this pantomime cow of a cultural backdrop comes Octavio Solis' Gibraltar, a play that must be admired, if for no other reason, for its daring attempt to rescue duende's dwindling honor. Solis' fandango in the minor key about the inextricable, impenetrable danza between love and death is couched in the language of duende. The play mentions the word no fewer than nine times. There are ghosts. One of the characters (who takes his name from a Spanish term for flamenco musical forms) even speaks with an Antonio Banderas brogue. This is serious stuff. But do the pseudo-gaucho diction and the phantoms having onstage sex allow us to grasp duende at the root?

Don't Shoot the Messenger: Danielle Thys, Dena Martinez, Danny Wolohan, and Johnny Moreno (in shadow).
Seth Dickerman
Don't Shoot the Messenger: Danielle Thys, Dena Martinez, Danny Wolohan, and Johnny Moreno (in shadow).

Details

Through Dec. 17 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Arkansas and Carolina), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 401-8081 or visit www.thickhouse.org.

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Set in contemporary San Francisco, Gibraltar concerns Amy (Dena Martinez), a young, recently widowed artist of Mexican descent, whose mourning for her dead husband takes an unexpected turn when she encounters a mysterious hobo named Palo (Johnny Martinez) while perusing the detergent aisle at the Marina District Safeway. Palo (who may or may not be a figment of Amy's grief-fogged imagination) has traveled up the coast from Mexico to the Bay Area in search of his lover, Lila, a woman who left him after he beat her in a jealous rage. Now ensconced in Amy's trendy, disheveled apartment, Palo tries to force his host (who may or may not be the long-lost Lila in denial) to accept him as her lover. Palo does this by telling Amy stories about "faithless lovers on the brink of faith," in the hopes that his folktales about the fatal passions of a dockyard worker and a life-drawing coach, a policeman and his estranged wife, and a senile old woman and her journalist spouse might coax out the Lila in Amy. As the couples in Palo's narratives (who may or may not be imaginary and may or may not be people Amy knows) flow in and out of the protagonist's apartment/mind, Amy and Palo fight over the outcome of the stories until Amy begins to understand the true circumstances that surrounded her husband's untimely death.

Solis' previous works, most especially his edgy, joyous The Ballad of Pancho and Lucy (which remains one of the most intoxicating productions I've experienced here in the last five years), demonstrate the playwright's considerable range as a storyteller and poet. In Gibraltar, he controls a complex story-within-a-story structure. The plot unravels like a dream, bringing the flying couples in Marc Chagall's paintings to mind and suggesting the ethereal or unknown dimension of human relationships. Director Tony Kelly and his cast offset the lyrical mood with their visceral, physical performances. Among other things, the play sees ensemble members clutch each other's throats, strip off their clothes, and pretend to fuck.

But despite the sincere, deliberate acting and Kelly's clean-cut mise-en-scène, Gibraltar feels more like a parody of passion than the real thing. Like duende, the side of human relationships that the play attempts to explore defies interpretation. The best Solis can do to emphasize how ill-equipped we are to describe our feelings and needs is to pepper his text with foreign words and repeatedly play on Gertrude Stein's famous "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" with the line "Love is love is love." The writing spirals south from there. Instead of subtle metaphors, we get heavy-handed symbols, some of which (such as the endless references to water and the contrast between white and black, life and death) seem to come right out of Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. Instead of concrete details, we are deluged with empty, quasi-cryptic statements; for example, when Amy asks Palo how long he's been looking for Lila, he answers: "How long is the shore?" And instead of letting us come to our own conclusions about the characters' relationships, Solis provides constant commentary on the action taking place before our eyes. There's already plenty of tension in the face-off between the disenfranchised cop and his wife without having Amy chime in with: "I see it in her eyes. The word 'no,' clear and mortal. She wants to tell him the truth. She knows it won't make a shit of difference, she's going to die, anyway, so why should she capitulate now, when the integrity of her heart is on the line?" Then Palo throws in his two cents: "And he knows it. He knows his wife. He knows in the end she will coax the bullet into her brain. He's prepared to have the truth slay them all." Did I say this was serious stuff? On second thought, it's pretty funny.

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