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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
Ignore the doom and gloom talk about the theater as an invalid that produces only revivals and juke box musicals. Sure, there are plenty of revivals with film and television stars to boost box office sales and cynically manufactured musicals built around a well known pop group's song catalogue. But as Julianne Boyd and her Barrington Stage company have proved, there are also fresh new musicals like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and musicals of enduring substance like Stephen Sondheim's Follies, to prove that the musical theater is alive and well. And while Boyd has opted to revive a hundred-year-old play for her next Main Stage production, that revival happens to be Oscar Wilde's very best play (The Importance of Being Earnest).
Now, on the same Second Stage which saw the start of the Spelling Bee's little-engine-that-could journey to Broadway, Ms. Boyd has given theater goers an opportunity to experience a new dramatic voice. That voice belongs to Cusi Cram. The play, Fuente, is powerful, moving and original, which after a three-year development process and a Herrick Theatre Foundation Prize for New Play, is being given a smartly staged, well acted world premiere at Boyd's smaller venue in Sheffield. Cram has written a small-scale at once real and mythical epic about love, vengeance and one's sense of place. The language is earthy (this is NOT a family show!) and poetic. The characters and their stories are sad but also funny enough to have the audience burst out laughing. The Garcia Marquez-like magic is amusingly propelled by a bottle of Aqua Net hair spray.
Director Sturgis Warner has assembled six fine actors, several purposefully double cast, to bring the mythical desert town's population to vibrant life. The arid landscape of this town which represents home to some and a place to run away from to others is simply but effectively evoked by set and lighting designers Brian Prather and D. Benjamin Courtney.
The play's non-linear structure takes us backward to the central characters' grade school days, on to their young adult years when the magic driven events lead to explosive changes in their lives, and many years forward for the earlier events to come to a happy ending (well, sort of).
To give you some idea about the story line without spoiling its twists and turns: Chaparro (Michael Ray Escamilla) is the beautiful Soledad's (Lucia Brawley) lover. Though she chose Chaparro over Esteban (Paolo Andino) who's also loved her since they were small children, she yearns for a life beyond Fuente. Influenced by the can-do life style of Alexis Carrington (via endlessly watched episodes of the 1980s sitcom Dynasty) Soledad sees her open-toed sandals as a symbol for not being able to run away from her uneventful life. When Chaparro goes off to the town's business center, Fuente Central, to buy her more sturdy shoes, along comes Esteban promising another means of escape-- the chance to go to the always beckoning sea and to learn to drive. This sure to misfire adventure leaves Chaparro mad with grief and Omar (Piter Marek), one of Fuente's most contented and gentle residents, a victim of Chaparro's rage. Also abandoned is Esteban's pregnant wife Adela (Zabryna Guevara). A woman with magical powers, faith and the resourcefulness of the enterprising pursuer of the American dream, Adela, unlike Chaparro, does not succumb to grief.
While the actors, like the playwright, are experienced but still little known, emerging artists, I've seen three of the six give standout performances in Off-Broadway plays -- Brawley in Buicks (also in a Shakespeare & Company production of The Tempest), Zabryna Guevara in The Cook and Jeanine Serralles in The Antigone Project and Hold Please. All three live up to the promise shown in these earlier parts. Their Fuente colleagues are also excellent. Michael Ray Escamilla is all fire and fury as Chaparro and slyly comical in his second role. The part of the gentle Arab Omar, could easily be stereotypical and manufactured were it not for Piter Marek's likeable, understated performance.
Ms. Cram's imaginative blend of rough and tough language that often sounds like poetry is somewhat reminiscent of Stephen Adly Guirgis whose work has been nurtured by the LAByrinth Theater Company, as Cram's is being nurtured by Barrington Stage. Though no longer a workshop production as it was last fall at Barrington Stage's Sheffield Studio Space, Fuente still has some rough spots that could use more work. At two and a half hours (including the intermission), it would benefit from some trimming, especially during the first act. A good starting point would be to get rid of various subtext items that are hinted at rather pointlessly (Chaparro's being abused by his father and Adela's Lesbian inclinations). Future directors would also do well to cut down on the overly busy use of the benches that are this production's chief props.
The above are minor complaints about this first full-scale staging that gives Fuente the running shoes Soledad yearns for so that it can move on and experience the life it deserves.