by Richard Hinojosa · April 14, 2015
Hot passion and lust scorches the West End Theatre in Desi Moreno-Penson’s searing new play that takes elements of Greek tragedy and sets them in the Boogie Down Bronx. The evening, thick with desire, rhythm, magic and poetry, teases primal human emotions to a thrilling climax you won’t soon forget.
Much like Eugene O’Neill sets his classic tragedy, Desire Under the Elms, in rural New England, Moreno-Penson sets her tragic story in a bodega in Hunts Point. She uses the ancient Greek story about Phaedra and Hippolytus, the same story that inspired O’Neill, as the backdrop for her characters’ inevitable downfall. Phaedra in this case is the aptly named Laluz and Hippolytus is the young and beautiful Sotero. The owner of the bodega, known only as Viejo (old man), is the aging Theseus in this story. He’s owned the store for a long time but his neighborhood is changing. Gentrification has come. There’s a green market moving in that threatens to put him out of business. As he struggles to keep his business afloat, he finds that he can’t keep his new wife satisfied no matter how much he screws her behind the bodega. She is the daughter of the neighborhood santera (a priestess of Santeria), what I grew up calling a bruja – a witch – though not the broom riding type of witch. This type of witch will curse you by burying clippings of your hair and then peeing on it. Laluz has debts to pay to the Orishas (spirits of Santeria) who have granted her curses in the past. And spirits always get their payback. Like many Greek tragedies, Laluz’s pride gets the best of her.
Moreno-Penson’s text is rich and filled with a true love of everything gothic. Fans of magical realism and gothic literature will be particularly interested in this one. It delves into our most basic fears and needs. She infuses the script with a great deal of beautiful, poetic language and juxtaposes all that with some rather foul language. In the same way, she creates characters that are equally dynamic and filled with contradictions. Laluz, for example, is sweet and spicy at times but then she turns around and embodies the evil woman plotting to crush your soul. There is also a fantastic character who represents the chorus in a Greek tragedy. He is a one-man chorus with a Nuyorican attitude who perfectly ties the play together. The play’s director, Lorca Peress, pumps up the tension with action and proximity while creating lovely stage pictures.
The production uses video projections (Jan Hartley and Christopher Marston) to help tell the tragic tale. The videos are of ghosts/events from the past and they also help propel the story into the uncertain future. They are projected on the evocative and cleverly designed set (Christopher and Justin Swader) made of scrim and wood as well as the back wall that is curved like a cyclorama. The light design (Alex Moore) is colorful and dazzling and the nuanced sound design (David Margolin Lawson) is quite rousing. There is also a fantastic bucket percussionist (LaFrae Sci) who sits just off stage right banging out a steamy rhythm underneath everything. There is great fight choreography (Logan McCoy) and beautiful designed and built costumes and masks (Lisa Renee Jordan). Overall, the production value here is incredibly high. I was truly impressed with every element. The cast is fortunate to have such a great production crew backing them up.
The ensemble is solid. They sink deeply into their characters and use the heightened language to deliver some powerful monologues and scenes. Mariana Parma’s Laluz is captivating and vibrant. I loved to hate her. Alex R. Hernandez plays Sotero with effortlessness realism. I was particularly taken in by his romantic scene at the top of Act 2 with the girl he really loves, Alcidia, who is played brilliantly by Darlenis Duran. Gustavo Heredia poignantly plays Viejo with a perfect balance of power and powerlessness. Roseanne Almanzar is great as the unheard voice of reason, Rosalia, who tries to help Laluz turn things around before it’s too late. In the end, it is Marcos Sotomeyer who owns the evening with his charismatic and charming one-man chorus character.
We all know where a tragic tale is headed. It’s no surprise when characters meet their doom. Still, we root for them because we have the same thoughts and fears. We have a basic need to manipulate our world, and whether we turn to magic or to guns to get what we want, we always plow forward into the inevitable. Comida De Puta is a play that accomplishes what theatre does best - the dissection of human emotion. And seeing it the echoing, domed space of the West End Theatre make the experience that much more powerful and mystical. This is hip, modern tragedy at its very best.