El Paso Blue by Hispanic playwright Octavio Solís, now making its East Coast debut at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, is a bilingual tribute to Spanglish, (with no surtitles), to the painful journey of cultural assimilation. It is wonderfully ironic that it’s written and performed mostly in English.
Based on Greek myth, El Paso Blue explores fundamental questions: Who are you? Where do you live? To which side of the border do you belong? The Hispanic, Spanish-speaking world or the Anglo, English-speaking one?
A huge, grotesque, dilapidated slat-board shack hangs suspended mid-space upstage center. Even the stage floor boards look warped, raked at an angle. The set design (Regina García) envelops us into a nightmarish trance. The bizarre structure reflects whatever color of light shines upon its roof, red, yellow, or blue. Or it radiates glaring white from a naked lightbulb inside. Christopher Annas-Lee (recent winner of the Helen Hayes Lighting award for last season’s Yerma at GALA) provides the lighting design. We’re somewhere that’s nowhere near the Mexican border, called Jornado del Muerto, “route of the dead man,” an extremely dry 100-mile stretch of desert territory—a wasteland.
Solís bases his allegory on the Oedipal myth, a father-son relationship. Al (or Alejandro), played with mock-heroic, macho-man bluster by Andrés Talero, and Duane, his Pancho Sanza-like sidekick, depicted with self-mocking, deadpan detachment by Bob Sheire, are pals who are on an epic journey to find Al’s wife, Silvie. The whole piece is a riff on the Greek myth. And there’s gotta be a reason “blue” is in the title, signifying more than a blue-eyed blond, femme fatale, who belts from the gut, named Silvie. It’s a withering send-up of the moody dreamy jazz idiom, the “blues,” that dwells on the sad side of love.
Events come in a jumbled, illogical sequence like a dream. Once, Duane took a bullet in his head that was intended for Al. Because Duane saved Al’s life, Al owes him one. When Duane gets caught in a petty robbery of a beauty shop, for mistaking hair rollers for wads of money, Al goes to jail for a year to repay Duane for saving his life. Before Al goes to prison, he takes his new, blond, blue-eyed Anglo wife, Sylvie, played with soul-wrenching, breathless urgency by Verónica del Cerro, for safe-keeping to his father, Jefe/a.k.a. Marcelo. Jefe is played by Lawrence Redmond, who exudes the image of a macho man. Although alienated because son Al blames him for his diabetic mother’s death, Jefe agrees to the deal. At first, father and daughter-in-law do not mix, like oil and water. But barriers crack, and a lust-filled liaison between Jefe and Sylvie overflows into possessive love.
Solís, as if screenwriting, uses the quick cut, a cinematic technique, on stage.. The year is up. Al is released from jail, and he and Duane, go in search of Sylvie. The playwright shifts time and place zones, from past to present, from location to location, from dreams to reality, until we end up in a truck on the road, where terrified Sylvie and Jefe are on-the-run. Meanwhile, Al wielding a hunting knife, vows: “I’m gonna find you, Sylvie—I can’t live without you.” It seems as if the swashbuckling swagger satirizes romantic relationships in the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema Dolores del Rio films, or the 1930’s Hollywood Robin Hood-in-jolly-old England flicks, the notion that life on-the-run is romantic and thrilling.
Guided by inspiration, José Carrasquillo, has dreamed of directing this play at GALA since 1997 when he first met Solís. The result is an entire production, with its contagious, jerky rhythms, that shimmers with energy making it a must-see show.
Carrasquillo directs with his upbeat, light touch: up front and center, using the apron. Actors face out so we pick up important reactions. The overall effect is riveting, mesmerizing.
The casting is pitch-perfect. Redmond brings a solid gravitas to the character of Jefe, like an anchor, whose soul is still in Mexico. He seems to personify the old world Mexican-American, critical of Mexican women who deny their identity to fit into a white world. Jefe uses the pejorative, “gabacha,” (fibers for squeezed fruit) for his dead wife, Mariana. She dyed her hair blonde and pretended to be a white woman. She denied her Mexican heritage and assimilated. Although Jefe and Sylvie know they’ve done wrong having broken a natural law, Redmond succeeds in making a tyrannical patriarch sympathetic.
Andrés Talero projects a macho-male, with passion, making Al the Americanized-Mexican. Blocked by invisible walls that can’t be crossed, he expresses his obsession with Sylvie as his passport and shield to safety in a white world. Al’s tragic flaw is that he doesn’t see that Sylvie likes her taste of freedom. Yet Al’s confrontation with his father is his agonized cry from the heart, personifying his deep seeded feelings about being a Mexican “spic” immigrant. “I’m just another Mexican without her! She’s mine, she’s my VISA, she’s my liberty,… my torch..” Without giving away the ending, this is key to the play. Materialistic values have replaced the spiritual. What the Statue of Liberty was supposed to represent.
Actor Bob Sheire as Duane has some wildly absurd, comic moments as a disabled guy hearing voices from radio calls and random frequencies from all over the universe because of his metal head plates, thanks to sound design by Neil McFadden. The weird bleeps and electronic interruptions bouncing off the metal head plate inside Duane’s head add a surreal dimension.
The songs are delivered with abrasive street-smart lingo, all rough and edgy, as when del Cerro shines with rowdy sass as Sylvie, the beauty pageant contestant. Sylvie is the street babe femme fatale, who belts from her gut: “Gun your motor, baby, buckle down for the heat/Slap a little road rash on your common law meat/Run down any suckers that come in your sight/It looks like it’s gonna be that kinda night….” And the other actors segue from acting scenes into a five-member, shuffling chorus-line formation, accompanied by musical support from an antiquated 1940s barroom jukebox.
Carrasquillo highlights the high-charged action with quick cuts from Jefe and Sylvie in hiding, to Al and Duane in hot pursuit, at road stops getting directions from China, a scruffy, sardonic Chicana, played by Alina Collins-Maldonado, who has spotted the on-the-run lovers. Collins-Maldonado, draped in a stereotypical, red-striped Mexican serape as China, who represents Mesoamerican flesh, “a perfect blend of tan and burnt sienna, …Black hair as thick as a horses’ mane,” wisecracks her way into the spotlight, as she rejects the role of being a WASP in Texas: “Dark is the pigment of doom/You go for the whiter shade of paleface.” …..“Me, I like dark, the darker the better.” China is harping on the Texan racial bias, how it works against immigrants, trying to realize the American Dream for a better life. She satirizes the notion that the life of the outlaw on-the-run, is romantic, even glamorous.
What’s unique is the way Solís integrates movement and song, yet this is not a musical in the traditional sense. At one moment Carrasquillo guides his actors into pantomiming their psychological struggle. It is as if Solís is creating a new expressive, mixed genre. The scenes lurch forward like the sound of static, lightning blasts, like movie segments. Ultra-romantic declaration-of-love passages play out next to sound bites of horror, such as Silvie’s brutal description of the airline crash that killed her father and traumatized her into boozing. As the play progresses, the desert shack seems to come alive with supernatural life. A naked white light bulb flickers on and off from within, the setting for lust, betrayal and revenge.
El Paso Blue
closes June 26, 2016
Details and tickets
But this play is far from all doom and gloom. What seems key to the profounder meaning behind this terse 90-minute allegory is the symbolic blue in the title and distilled on the playbill cover. A blue eye stares out over a cracked desert wasteland. The image is reminiscent of the billboard eyes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel, The Great Gatsby, symbolizing the loss of spiritual values.
Overall, El Paso Blue is a powerful piece because of its many levels and the music by Michael “Hawkeye” Herman. Octavio Solís seems intent on breaking down barriers to a supernatural level, to the powerful forces of the subconscious, that unite us. The smoking of a cigar sends smoke into the audience and invokes an ancient Taino Indian ritual that elevates the entire scene to a spiritual level. Solís achieves an altered state of being through movement and his hyped-poetic language. Solís’s vision can be compared to that of mixing of theatrical effects found in Anna en el trópico/Anna in the Tropics, by Nilo Cruz, Hispanic playwright and winner of 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Too bad live musicians, like a guitarist, couldn’t have been added to physicalize the Rockabilly accompaniments to Sylvie’s songs throughout. Also the pop-country, Mexican-Spanish vocal tradition of Tejano, that fuses Czech and German dance tunes and rhythms, needs an accordion and guitar. It’s a fusion style that is mentioned but not realized on stage. But powerhouse performances make up for that drawback.
El Paso Blue by Octavio Solís . Directed by José Carrasquillo . Music by Michael “Hawkeye” Herman. Featuring Verónica del Cerro, Andrés Talero, Bob Sheire, Alina Collins-Maldonado, Lawrence Redmond . Scenic Design: Regina García. Costume Design: Robert Croghan. Lighting Design: Christopher Annas-Lee. Sound Design: Neil McFadden. Fight Director: Jonathan Ezra Rubin. Choreography: Ed Osheroff. Assistant Choreographers: Jim McNulty, Richard Scott, Alex Keen . Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy