Se Llama Cristina
A man and a woman awake beside a table, a set of drug works between them, the man with a needle stuck in his arm. Neither of them remembers their own name, never mind each other. There's a chicken drumstick in a crib beside them; they have no idea how or why it got there.
Thus begins "Se Llama Cristina," a play by Octavio Solis premiering at San Francisco's Magic Theatre. It's an odd opening with dubious promise, yet Solis and Magic's company manage to weave a mesmerizing tale that is equally raw passion and gorgeous linguistic gymnastics.
Filled with language and performances of heartfelt conviction, this is a play about characters trying to escape their own dark histories so they can become the kind of people and parents they desperately want to become.
It's a story that all of us can relate to in some way. But in this work, Solis creates such a heart-stopping sense of urgency that it's an edge-of-your-seat mystery. As the action unfolds and the odds are stacked ever higher against these characters, they become increasingly sympathetic. And the audience becomes almost as desperate for their redemption as these two characters are themselves.
Set exclusively in a dingy apartment complete with popcorn ceiling tiles, ugly linoleum and a banged-up door, "Se Llama Cristina" takes its audience on a time-shifting journey in which Man and Woman (their names change as they learn more of their histories) re-experience the events that took them to the play's opening moment.
It's a history that's exquisitely evoked by the two primary players. As Man, Sean San Jose is unwaveringly authentic, each small gesture and expression a window into a world of experience. As Woman, Sarah Nina Hayon is simply stunning, melding into her role as if she had lived it herself. Together, they keep the small stage crackling from the second they awake.
Along the way, the two encounter Abel, a crude, swaggering Texan with a ten-gallon hat and, through his job with the telephone company, the power to cut Man's and Woman's communication with the outside world. Although Abel's ostensible role is as Woman's former husband, played by the terrifyingly convincing Rod Knapp, he seems to embody every evil the two have ever encountered, constantly reappearing to cut off their escape.
By the time Girl (the luminous Karina Gutierrez) climbs in through the apartment's grimy window seeking her own escape from another male trickster, we're almost convinced of the play's inevitable conclusion. Yet, here, Solis (who's surprised us throughout with time-bending twists and turns) fails to do the obvious. Instead, he pulls off another surprise and leads us to the exact place we did not expect.
"Se Llama Cristina" was originally begun by Solis back in the 1990's when he was confronting fatherhood and filled with fear about this new role. Figuring out parenthood via writing a play started with two characters and a piece of chicken in an otherwise empty room.
After 20 pages, Solis was unable to solve his own mystery and put away the script for 15 years. He returned to it after receiving a commission from the Denver Center, but after its completion the Center ultimately didn't produce the play. The Magic Theatre had long wanted to work with Solis, and when they came upon the script, they immediately jumped on it.
That's not surprising. "Se Llama Cristina" is filled with the Bay Area playwright's characteristic blend of unfiltered emotion and exquisitely lyrical language. He stays away from the safe middle ground.
Instead, he makes audiences ask challenging questions about the people around us, the world we inhabit, and ourselves. The result is a theater experience that's rich, deeply thoughtful and far, far better than most.
With a legacy of launching envelope-pushing artists like Sam Sheppard and a recent record of several highly acclaimed productions, the Magic Theatre clearly has a talent for picking winners. And, with this pitch-perfect 90-minute production, Director Loretta Greco has another one on her hands.
This is a play that deserves to be seen by far more people than can be accommodated in the small space that the Magic offers. But it's also a production that benefits from that theater's wonderful intimacy. For the relatively few who get the chance to see it, "Se Llama Cristina" will be one of the stand-out theatrical experiences of this year.
"Se Llama Cristina" plays through Feb. 17 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center D3, San Francisco. For info or tickets, call 415-441-8822 or visit the theater’s website