La Isla Obscura

Ni Boca, Ni Sangre

Teatro Latino de Minnesota

THE NIGHT BEGAN badly. We all stood around a tiny lobby for half an hour before the show due to some sort of "lighting crisis." Then, in the opening scene, snickers arose from the audience when two characters standing on a "hill" used binoculars to look down at two lovers entwined on the "beach"--which was, in fact, just a few feet away. For much of Ni Boca, Ni Sangre (Nor Mouth, Nor Blood), a sexual/political drama set in 1930s Puerto Rico, I couldn't comprehend the Spanglish dialogue--not because I don't understand Spanish but because the actors weren't projecting or enunciating clearly. (A copy of the script came in mighty handy.)

Yet, somewhere along the line, the show seduced me; whether anyone else would like it I can't begin to guess. It's an idiosyncratic piece, both erotic and intellectually muscular, arty but not unbearably pretentious. It wants to make you work a little, wonder what the hell's going on while pieces slowly come together. Or don't.

Written and directed by Crisis Point Theatre graduate Aravind Enrique Adayanthaya, the piece takes a dreamy, comic look at four lost souls and the intersections of their inflamed lives: Simón Simon, half American, raised more or less as a Puerto Rican; his fiancée, the delicate American Oona Farnell, whose father owns the big sugar plantation; Andrés, a nationalist activist and Simón's best friend; and Sol, a Puerto Rican prostitute/spy. Simón, who's really a writer, has a depressing new job tossing peasants off land for Oona's old man. In his spare time, he's also begun an affair with Sol. Oona (Rebecca Meyers), meanwhile, has only been on the island six months yet is already stuck in a social straitjacket; overnight, she finds herself being treated as a gringa colonialist. Andrés, also a writer, is worried. It seems someone has been burning down Farnell property with amazing efficiency; a few farmers have even retrieved land from the colonialists. Someone is sure to get caught.

The back wall of the stage is dominated by what looks like a movie screen framed by a stucco facade draped with American and Puerto Rican flags. In fact, the screen is a scrim on which black-and-white slides of present-day Puerto Rico mingle with shots of old movie posters. The scrim serves as a reminder of the influence of American culture, particularly of Hollywood, on this island populace. The set piece produces an especially cinematic effect when the cast members work from behind it, looking like faded ghosts of forgotten film actors. Hollywood has obviously influenced Adayanthaya too: Ni Boca, Ni Sangre is trying to be a thriller, complete with guns, spies, double-crossing, sex, and unbearable stretches of suspense. On this last count the play fails. The pacing is way too slow to build compelling momentum (maybe this is the unbearable part). And since the actors don't speak intelligibly enough, much of the time we're lost.

Sol, the prostitute/spy, is very good at hiding behind a movie screen--and hiding behind a cultural stereotype--for best advantage. Or so I gather. You know her: wild raven hair, spread legs--a vixen and a tragic type. She's always moaning about being "on fire." But there's a problem with this, too. We're never totally sure whether actress Elizabeth Chaigne is merely trying her best to act Latina and doing a painfully sloppy job of it, or whether her character is really like this... or whether Chaigne ironically calculates every "Latin" twitch of her ass.

The show's most cogent element is the brotherhood between Andrés (played by Teatro del Pueblo co-founder José Alfredo Panelli) and Simón (Aaron Oster). These guys have chemistry; they know how to build a rhythm together. Their scenes give a better feel for Puerto Rican sensibilities than any others. Simón and Andrés are the intellectual elite of their island. True dissidents, their spirits represent a fusion of cynicism and wild expectation. They drink lots of rum and talk dirty; they're real.

They're real to this gringa, at least. So much is made these days of the value of "universality," and the way that cultural specificity can expose this nebulous entity in everything from Uncle Vanya to Fences. Of course, the assertion is true, and at points this play proves it. But universality has become overrated: When white folks use that term (or anyone else for that matter), they're often talking about how well they understand a work of art. Or, more accurately, how painlessly they can squeeze it into their view of the world. For the most part, Ni Boca, Ni Sangre is unconcerned with universality, and that's just fine. This production is flawed, but the script's freaky little universe is rich. Why shouldn't we have to labor a bit to find our place in it?

Ni Boca, Ni Sangre plays at the Cedar Riverside People's Center through June 7; call 891-9079.

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