Mixed Blood Theatre Company
Mystery of the Rose Bouquet
THE STORY GOES like this: Nicole--make that "Nick"--(Melinda Lopez) is a highly successful New York book editor who reeks of competence; her latest triumph is a self-help number titled Total Yes!. She's gorgeous and smart and, with her Ivy League vocabulary, would no doubt kick your sorry ass at Scrabble. She's the sort preyed upon by gurus like Deepak "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success" Chopra: well-to-do, literate, but suffering from success ennui. Now that Nick has played Wonder Woman ("I've done the whole competing with men on their own terms thing. You know what? It's too easy."), she's set her sights on Supermom--and started off with typical overachievement by conceiving twins.
Her husband Hollis (Warren C. Bowles) isn't quite so potent in his job as a bankruptcy attorney--getting "fucked" by co-workers is a constant worry--but he makes a good living. Their best friends Garwood and Rafaella (Shawn Hamilton and Sue Scott) are a prickly pair--a lecherous "oink-oink" and a no-b.s. feminist. They're all supposedly good liberals, but their lifestyle screams Total Yuppie!: summers in the Vineyard, cell phones at the gym, vocabularies in which "rez" means a table at an exclusive eatery.
This tightly packed comedy is the offspring of the Katherine Hepburn screwball school (i.e. tough, "anything a man can do I can do better" lady discovers that, in fact, she can't do everything). Only this time race, class, magic realism, and blue humor are thrown in for contemporary intrigue (on the night I attended, a crew of elderly audience members seemed unimpressed by the bawdy language). One senses playwright Michael Weller (who also penned the Hair and Ragtime screenplays) is trying to make these characters--all people of color, except for Rafaella--whiter than white, in service of later effect (sort of a Wizard of Oz thing). Nicole is Latina but doesn't even seem to know the word "guacamole," and Hollis's concern with African-American culture extends only as far as a couple tasteful African sculptures. (Their impressively designed and super-realistic apartment is as bland as a bowl of puffed rice.) So when Holly and Nick decide they can't handle two babies on their own, an undocumented Latina maid arrives to colorize their lives like some Good Witch of the South, raising some ethical hurdles along the way.
Ninoska Meyer is fantastic as Unitia, the frighteningly perfect and underpaid housekeeper who quiets babies with a wave of her fingertips, makes food so yummy it's almost sexual, and casts a spell of delirious fecundity over the household (guided psychically by her bruja back home). Traditional sex roles surface under her influence ("It's a whole new neoretro kind of thing," says Nicole), while the apartment gets strung with red pepper lights, and merengue and wine flow freely. Of course problems arise, and our modern, neocolonial fucked-uppies learn that native wit is the great equalizer. Maybe.
"Enough!" you may say. "Too formulaic!" Granted, it is a bit. But remember that this is social satire, a cartoon of urban life that is supposed to ride the borders of our disbelief, poke the limits of our sympathy for the devil, inevitably leading us to ask "God, am I like that?" Lopez, Bowles, Scott, and Hamilton are such intelligent actors that we do like them, just enough, while Meyer's simultaneously subtle and over-the-top. All five balance onstage energy so that the magic realism isn't jarring, but instead lends a dose of dizzy surprise. But don't expect cultural reverence--for anybody. No one here gets out uncrucified.
Manuel Puig's Mystery of the Rose Bouquet at the Guthrie's lab also utilizes fantasy, but with subtler intentions. Like his novel/play/film Kiss of the Spider Woman, this show presents two characters in an institutional setting, forced to navigate cultural gaps to find underlying alliances. In Rose Bouquet, a fiery old dame has put herself in the hospital for depression, and a middle-aged nurse manages to get her to talk, eat, and think about life outside her own troubles. Dream sequences allow the actresses (Brenda Wehle as the Nurse and Barbara Reid as the Patient) to play different roles and reveal their pasts with a sense of melodramatic humor. The actresses do a fine job, but I found the characters' inability to listen to each other throughout most of the play (intentional I'm sure) trying on the ear. And while the play touches on mystery and imagination, I couldn't help but compare it--unfavorably--to the genius of Kiss of the Spider Woman. That story opens up a wide and provocative universe; this one just begins to contemplate one.