IF YOU NEED a perfect case for just how much the right director can make or break a production, let the Empty Space's References to Salvador Dal???ake Me Hot be Exhibit A. Playwright Jose Rivera has written a dreamy meditation on the struggle to feel alive in the deadening morass of the "real" world, but his script fights—and loses—essentially that same battle with director Rod Pilloud. Listen carefully and, in fleeting passages when an actor is taken by Rivera's broken lyricism, you can hear the text trying to sing its way up through the doldrums into which it has fallen.
References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot
Annex Theatre ends March 24
Gabriela (Arlette del Toro) is a vital young military wife left withering on the vine in a California desert town, trapped in middle-class isolation with Martin (Jose Abaoag), the teenage virgin next door whose romantic overtures sound like declarations of war. She craves the brief sojourns she's allowed with husband Benito (Mark Dias) but is increasingly aware of the light that has left his eyes. Gabriela's frustrations take the form of obsessive reveries, in which a Cat (Bhama Roget) and Coyote (Daniel J. Chercover) circle one another in a dangerous tease, and she looks to the Moon (Dias, uncomfortably, again) for romantic counsel.
For some reason, Pilloud has dealt with this feverish flesh and fantasy as though it were a kitchen-sink drama. Rivera's words swoop grandly between everyday speech and uncommon metaphor, sometimes halfway through a thought, and the world that would allow for such a leap has not been created here. The actors are often vaguely roaming, sloughing through their duties with an offhandedness that calls unwanted attention to any bit that has been self-consciously staged (sexual tangles, domestic squabbling, surreal tangos, et al.). The result is so mechanical that you can hear every monologue click and lock in to place. Roget (though a bit affected) and, particularly, Chercover have a sense of what's going on, if only because they are freed from the constraint of appearing human. But Pilloud has foiled them too: The "real" scenes between Gabriela and Benito (Dias is completely lost) are so drably ineffectual that the animals, by contrast, seem to have wandered in from some randy children's play.
"I wanted to touch Benito's skin because I wanted to learn something," Gabriela tells us. "Down where bones talk . . . and the human body hums with music." Del Toro's longings conjure up some of the passion slowly being driven out of modern life—she has a level frankness that Pilloud leans too heavily upon—but they're delivered like something anyone would say. Pilloud treats everything as if too challenged by its very unnaturalness. What cripples this production is that everyone keeps shrugging off the play's spell, giving us almost none of the magic that Rivera is so luminously clear we are missing.