Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot
Also see Patrick's review of Wives
It is this rather porous barrier between civilization and savagery that playwright José Rivera explores in his References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot, which opened this past weekend in a Custom Made Theatre Co. production staged in the Phoenix Theater. The set (by Sarah Phykitt) references Dalí in multiple ways, most notably with a dozen or so half-open drawers, symbols in Dalí's art of memory and the unconscious. Fitting, because Benito (Caleb Cabrera) is a soldier, a veteran of Mideast wars, struggling with the memories of combat and atrocities committed.
Before we meet Benito, however, we will first encounter the Cat (Alejandra Wahl), who lives with Benito's wife Gabriela (Carla Gallardo) in their house in Barstow, a small town in the California desert, a speck of civilization in a sea of wildness. In the opening scene, Cat, a symbol of domestication, runs into Coyote (Gabriel A. Ross), who tempts her to join him in the wilderness for a night of freedom and carnal delights. "How do I keep my freedom?" Coyote asks, almost rhetorically. "I don't care about their love!" he howls, referring to the humans who provide Cat with a life of relative comfort and safety, something that appeals little to Coyote.
Watching over these proceedings is the Moon (also Caleb Cabrera), a impartial observer, a lifeless body that only reflects light, caught in some in-between space. "Shakespeare called me inconstant. I never recovered from that," complains the Moon.
Benito has never really recovered from his experiences at war, something that becomes clear when he returns from his duties in what he calls "the field." The war is over, but it's never really finished for Benito, who struggles with PTSD. Likewise, Gabriela has her own demons. In her dreams (and perhaps in reality), she sees the cacti around their house coming closer and closer–the wild word inching ever nearer, threatening the space of peace and civilization she has created for herself and Benito. She wants to create something better for herself and Benito, but her man is committed to staying in the Army, where his beast-self is valued. Gabriela wants to bring him back into civilization, to re-tame him as it were. For his own good, as well as hers.
As Gabriela and Benito, Gallardo and Cabrera have an easy chemistry with each other. Despite the tension within their relationship, it's clear they are meant to be together. Each tries to reach out to the other to bring their partner closer, to align them more accurately with their own goals and desires. Although it's clear Benito can never truly be tamed, and Gabriel's wild side never fully released, it's fascinating to see how playwright Rivera uses this tension to create the drama that keeps the audience engaged. Their passion, like the full moon, illuminates every aspect of their relationship, and Gallardo especially expresses that passion with a fiery gaze that refuses to suggest even a hope of surrender.
References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot, like the artist himself, inhabits a world that is both strange and familiar. It challenges us to think about what we might have lost all those thousands of years ago when we began to tame the wild world with agriculture, civilization and culture. Directed ably by Katja Rivera (no relation), it's that rare absurdist (in part) play that is fully grounded in ordinary humanity. It's magical realism that elegantly bridges those two seemingly opposite qualities.
References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot runs through July 24, 2022, in The Custom Made Theatre Co., Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason Street, Suite 601, San Francisco CA. Shows are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. with matinees at 2:00 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $30-$40. For tickets and information, please visit www.custommade.org.