El Grito del Bronx
Rinska Prestinary and Remy Ortiz are the younger versions of Lulu and her brother Papo, and watching as they are indoctrinated into a world of animalistic brutality is a little bit like seeing innocent children being thrown into a toxic waste dump by their own kind, again and again. Later, as the grown Papo, Mr. Villa ends up on death row, gurgling in his own disease and painting a map of Puerto Rico with his own blood, in some of the many haunting scenes that nearly overlap, jumping backward and forward in time. And when the two grown siblings sit side by side in a prison cell, the evening reaches a heart-stalling eternity, with each at a crossroads that neither can revisit.
Nearly everyone on stage and everything that goes into El Grito makes for perfect story-telling: The operatic parents (Eddie Torres and Diane Herrera); Warren Levon as a fellow inmate on death row; and Patrese McClain as one of the mothers mourning a lost son, are all splendid in a landscape of meaningless lives, and meaningless death.
But that's also the problem with Ms. Cruz's play: it presents such a repugnant portrait of Puerto Rican immigrants in America that it's almost impossible to grasp, let alone embrace. Director Anthony Moseley most vividly reveals this vision when Papo imagines himself standing before a youthful selection of his victims, white gas station attendants lined up, who talk and act like an army of fools under his equally foolish command: each one, apparently, raised to give up a life that never was worth living. And, unfortunately, actress Molly Reynolds (as Elizabeth) must also drive home the same point, directed into a shockingly two-dimensional reading of a pieta scene over the body of her own dead son. There's no doubt in my mind she could have done more with that scene, but, as a result of this and all the many scenes of brutal violence, the most dreadful cry ringing forth from the whole production is that the world is full of people who simply don't deserve to live. Not exactly the Star Trek ethos that Lulu's Jewish, suburban boyfriend embraces.
But those are the two worlds Ms. Delgado straddles with perfect dramatic intensity and mind-bending confusion: trying to shed her wretched Bronx upbringing and step into an idealistic Connecticut present. The internal war she wages to stand upright in each is fascinating and tortuous, although her choices are never laid out in strictly pedantic terms, to the playwright's great creditthough the play also adheres to the old Catholic school mantra that says "girls are good; boys are bad!"
Nevertheless, the prison scenes Mr. Moseley directs and the encounters between Papo and his victims are all so real and powerful that you may forget to breathe. Elsewhere, we see Ms. Prestinary as the young Lulu (a.k.a. Magdalena), reacting to the violence of her childhood world: her screams ringing like fingernails on the slate of the most hardened soul. It's a very good thing we already have the promise of her beautiful white wedding gown somewhere in the back of our minds, or we'd spend the whole evening like dying gas station attendants ourselves, our brains filled with hot lead too.
The fulfillment of the show's opening promise arrives suddenly, with surprising beauty, delicacy and simplicity. No longer the bride from hell (thanks to great staging and storytelling and acting), Lulu becomes another perfect bride, and somehow another girlish goddess, in spite of it all.
Through August 2, 2009, at the Owen Theater in the Goodman Theatre building, 170 North Dearborn Street, in Chicago's theatre district. For information call (312) 443-3800 or visit them online at either www.collaboraction.org or www.teatrovista.org.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association
Photograph by Saverio Truglia