By Kimberly Rau
In the 1990s, we were just starting to be concerned about climate change when Jose Rivera sat down and wrote the poetic and jarring “Marisol,” which takes place in a somewhat dystopian (and decidedly surreal) New York, where all of the milk is salty (because all of the crops are poisoned) and the moon has disappeared (but there’s a psychic commission trying to bring it back and chain it in its proper orbit). Nazis roam the streets lighting the homeless on fire. Men give birth. And the angels have given up being the guardians of anything and are attempting to overthrow God in order to set the universe right again.
Of course, when the show starts, we don’t know any of this. All we have is a young professional by the name of Marisol (played by Octavia Chavez-Richmond) who is being harassed on the subway by a vagrant who insists his guardian angel has taken off on him. When Marisol brushes him off, the disheveled man insists that he could change her entire life with one whack of a golf club. Fast forward to that night, and Marisol is visited by her guardian angel who tells her to join the holy war against God or take her chances on the street. The next morning, things are even more confusing for her (and the audience) when Marisol learns a woman with her exact name, who lives on her exact street, was killed by blunt force trauma to the head…after exiting from the same subway Marisol takes every day. Is it actually the Marisol we’re watching who died, or someone else? Even she starts to doubt her status as one of the living. And from there, it’s one trippy plot twist after another as Marisol desperately tries to set her world right again, which is a big ask when it eventually becomes impossible to even find Brooklyn. Whether she’s successful at setting things right is somewhat up for debate; however, though throughout the show Marisol gets more and more adept at seeing the “hidden” world around her, that is, the things that those less fortunate than she have had to deal with for decades.
Is that the point of the show? A sort of “wake up and pay attention” to all of us who overlook the people on the fringes of society? Perhaps. It’s somewhat hard to piece together with all of the zaniness on stage, but maybe that’s the point as well. With so much confusion, putting together a clear narrative for one’s life is almost impossible. With everything those on the edge face day after day, all of the uncertainty would make keeping things together a Herculean task, as we see time and time again in the cast of unfortunates Rivera presents.
Chavez-Richmond is an incredible actress and handles everything from upswings to breakdowns like the talent she is. Charlie Thurston, who plays the indisputably insane Lenny—the brother of Marisol’s coworker, June (Angela Brazil), who’s almost as unglued as her sibling—is perfectly disconcerting as he swings from empathy to violence like a pendulum. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see too much from Marisol’s guardian angel (listed only as Angel in the program). Angel informs Marisol pretty early on that she’s taking off to rally her winged brethren for the holy war, and mostly observes from that point on. However, what moments she does have are masterfully executed by Mia Ellis.
Amid the chaos, what is certain is that this play is impeccably designed and acted. There are moments where you want to look away, but are compelled to watch and try and understand. That’s the magic of live theater, and this show has it in spades. It moves at a good pace and is quite satisfying to watch, even when you’re left with more questions than answers. In the hands of director Brian Mertes everything just works, from the first surreal theatrical moment to the last. And if you’re a fan of theater that’s less than linear, this may be just the show for you. It’s certainly worth going and trying to draw your own conclusions.
Marisol runs through June 16 at Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington St., Providence. Tickets may be obtained online at www.trinityrep.com or by calling 401.351.4242.