Translated from Spanish, “sus manos” literally means “her hands”, and the beauty with which this symbolic title is currently translated onto the stage in Lauren Gunderson’s new play is simply striking. Hands are everywhere, from the grainy film footage projected onto the wall to the sensual outlines traced onto the backs of the lead females, and each time a new lithesome appendage is glimpsed, their splendor is reiterated. In the midst of a Mexican revolution and family rebellion in 1910 Oaxaca, the hands in Sus Manos provide the grounding necessary to guide the characters and audience through the turbulent saga.
Integrating live music and impressive silent film recreation, Sus Manos draws on as many senses as it can. The stage itself is a buttery dwelling laid with russet tiles and drenched in sunny lighting (courtesy of Scott Boyd). The costumes range from colorfully embroidered peasant blouses and beaded sombreros to ruffled, corseted gowns and sumptuous satin robes (designed by Alisha Engle), and through Todd Edwards (sound design) and Albin E. Konpka (composer) the musical score incorporates both Mexican flavor with a nod to American silent film nostalgia.
Also audible is the challenging story Gunderson presents to us. On the eve of the first rebellion of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, an American filmmaker arrives at the hacienda of Marco Marcado to film a Mexican-American version of Othello. Starring as Desdemona is brothel entertainer Lolita, and her presence in the hacienda and sickeningly close proximity to Marco infuriates Marco’s wife, Julia. As the filming continues, however, the suspicion and jealousy central to Othello fuel the relationships of those re-creating it, drawing Lolita and Julia together in their unexpected but honest battle for freedom within their tumultuous country.
Now, this isn’t exactly a historically ethnic twist on Othello, for in fact, the main plot points of Shakespeare’s play aren’t transferred to Sus Manos at all. The inclusion of the Moor’s tale (played onscreen in exaggerated white-face by Joe Fellman’s American director character—a noteworthy but never fully explained choice) is there merely to provide some excellent film images and profoundly relevant quotes in background to the onstage action. The film work is exquisite in its own right, and filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz delivers some masterful snippets that both enrich the play and lend a magnificently creative atmosphere.
As for the performances, the actors are slow to take off but quickly settle into their tension-strewn relationships. Christopher T. VanDijk possesses a smoldering nastiness as Marco, making his villain-like qualities both unexpected and frightening. Kevin Lyons relishes his short bits of comic relief as Marco’s brother, Ramiro, and Sylvia Roldan Dohi commands the stage with a powerful elegance as Adelita.
It is on Lolita and Julia, however, that the story focuses, and sometimes that pressure proves too much for the actresses portraying them. As Lolita, Arlene Chico-Lugo projects the timid air of defeat so well that her sexuality all but evaporates after her fishnet stocking-ed opening. It is very easy to understand how men have manipulated her in the past, but less clear where her forced determination to find personal freedom stems from. Likewise, Natasha Yannacanedo’s Julia is so fiery, outspoken, and strong that shunting her into the repressed wife role feels unnatural and rather questionable. Due largely in part to Gunderson’s intricate script, these qualms never become a real obstacle, but do halt the level of conviction from time to time.
In her author’s note, Laura Gunderson points out that nearly all twentieth-century stories of feminine freedom are “stuck in the higher end of white Anglo-European women.” In conjunction with director Heather Ondersma, this piece ventures into vulnerable territory but emerges lyrically resilient. As a journey for womanly discovery and independence, Gunderson’s effort doesn’t fully arrive until the later segments of the play. As an inventive, sensitive, and beguiling expression of conflicting emotions and objectives, I’ve got to hand it to Sus Manos.
Flying Fig Theater