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I left a performance last weekend of Narrow Way Stage Company’s “Marisol” deeply offended. Was I offended by the play’s blasphemous concept of an angelic rebellion against an impotent God? Nope. Was I offended by bursts of violence and foul language? Come on, the play’s set in New York. Was I offended by one female character’s orgasmic writhing or a male character’s giving birth? Nope. Actually, I was rather impressed by the actors’ commitment in those scenes.
Surely if the subject matter didn’t offend me, it must have been the execution. Was I offended by lousy performances, hackneyed direction, or terrible design work? None of that occurred, so it couldn’t be that. No, I left offended for one simple reason. I was deeply offended at NOT being offended by this play.
The scuttlebutt in the local theatre community about this production has been about audience members being so offended by what they’ve seen that they’ve been walking out. Director Beulah Vega was so affected by the perceived audience reaction that she wrote an op-ed piece to the local paper defending the show and imploring people to give the play a chance. I’ve been thinking of penning an essay on a theatre company’s responsibility to the community it serves and an audience’s responsibility to its local theatre companies, so I’ll reserve my comments on the audience’s and director’s reactions till then. My concern is that the buzz about what this show might be or might contain will cause audiences to enter with false expectations and leave wondering what the fuss was all about. What’s being lost in the reaction to this play is the play itself.
You walk into the Sonoma Community Center and see a set that might lead you to believe you’ve wandered into a production of “West Side Story”. Maybe the play’s title is a typo? Maybe it’s supposed to be “Maria” instead of “Marisol”? Then you realize that the two hoodlums atop the set have angel’s wings. No Sharks or Jets in sight. Nope, not gonna be a Sondheim show tonight. So what is it?
It’s a good play. It’s not a great play. It’s a challenging play, but probably more than it needs to be. It’s confusing, chaotic, overstuffed and disjointed. Perhaps that’s just what you get when you attempt to dramatize the apocalypse. It’s certainly not an easy play.
Marisol (Noelle Rodriguez), a single woman trying to survive in the hell that is New York, has had a rough day. After being attacked by a vagrant, Marisol is visited by her guardian angel (Angela Webb-Pigg) and informed that she can no longer protect Marisol as war has broken out in heaven. Marisol is invited to join the rebellion but her faith won’t allow her to turn against God. Marisol must now fend for herself as the war expands to Earth and New York is laid to ruin. As she navigates the chaos and anarchy, she encounters several apparently deranged people, ranging from a fugitive (Jana Molina) from the Citibank police (she bought a hat and went over her credit limit) to a wheelchair-bound burn victim (Matt Witthaus) who is looking for his skin while carrying a very large magnet to pull the moon back into orbit. Marisol’s surrealistic journey ends in a hail of automatic gunfire and the triumphant crowning of Heaven’s newest angel.
Sound absurd? Exactly. Playwright Jose Rivera pushes things well past the boundaries of your typical audience fare, but within this absurdist nightmare you’ll find trenchant commentary on social justice, environmentalism, the lack of humanity in government, the pursuit of wealth at all costs, and the power of faith, both in oneself and in community.
“Marisol” is anchored by a strong lead performance by Rodriguez (though I do wish there had been a bit more of a clearly defined character arc, particularly vocally) and benefits from strong support from a diverse group of players performing multiple roles (or are they?) Along with the aforementioned Webb-Pigg, Molina and Witthaus, good work is done by Clint Campbell, who gives birth on stage in a scene that is alternately humorous and unsettling. Abi Thompson is quite effective as a co-worker of Marisol’s who is fighting her own battles, both at work with surly office visitors, and at home in dealing with the behaviors and choices of her rapidly deteriorating brother.
On the technical end, as I understand it, music was an addition to this production courtesy of the director and cast. It worked. Listen and you’ll find the music choices compliment the stage action. Set design is also creative, and captures the look of an urban area deep in decay. Some interesting staging choices were made to utilize the renovated Sonoma Grammar School auditorium to good purpose. Lighting and sound design do their best to enhance the piece but were obviously limited by budget. It’s tough to stage the end of the world with no money, and several missed cues at the performance I attended muted what impact the elements might have had.
Bottom line? “Marisol” is worth seeing. It’s different. It’s dark and disturbing. It’s thought-provoking and infuriating. It’s funny and sad. It’s confusing and often over-the-top. It’s a lot of things. It presents an opportunity for an audience to experience something other than a two-act comedy or eight-song musical. It is not a conventional play done in a conventional way. Is it a perfect play that succeeds completely? No, but the company gives it a hell of a shot. Is it play that will satisfy everyone? No, of course it isn’t. Then again, what show does? Ultimately, what it is most ‘not’ is offensive.
So get beyond the buzz surrounding this production, drive out to Sonoma and experience this play for yourself. It’s a cheap ticket at ten bucks a seat. Enter the auditorium open to the numerous possibilities of live theatre and your reaction to it. There are plenty of things to be offended by in the world today – gun violence, government shutdowns, income inequality, corporate welfare, the Kardashians – the list goes on. Let’s not needlessly add local theatre to that list.
Presented by the Narrow Way Stage Company in Association with Sonoma Theatre Alliance
Thurs Nov 14th, Fri Nov 15th, Sat Nov 16th @ 8pm, Sun Nov 17th @ 2pm
Sonoma Community Center
276 E Napa St
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-4626 ext 1