THEATER | "Marisol" by Theatre Pro Rata: When heaven comes unglued, the earth suffers

Amber Bjork and Roneet Rahamim in Marisol. Photo by Charlie Gorrill, courtesy Theatre Pro Rata.

What do you say about a play where the curtain call consists of a homeless woman, a Neo-Nazi skinhead, a copy editor for a scientific book publisher, a mentally ill man who's just given birth (yes, you read that right), and a red-headed angel in full-on dominatrix/warrior garb?

You say "Thank God for Jose Rivera," for starters.  Rivera's play Marisol (home of all the weird characters listed above) is currently receiving a sharp production by Theatre Pro Rata.  One of the many great things about Rivera as a writer is that he is willing to tackle religion and the supernatural not just from a place of respect, but also from a place that is grounded in reality.  Any number of people are willing to admit they go to church, or believe in God and angels, but if you talk about it too much, well, people start to think you might be a little crazy.

marisol, presented through october 18 at the gremlin theater, 2400 university ave., st. paul. for tickets (pay what you can: $14-$41) and information, see theatreprorata.org.

The first and second act of Marisol begin with a riff on the same conversation.  At the start of the play, Marisol Perez (that previously mentioned scientific copy editor, played by Roneet Aliza Rahamim) nervously shares a subway car with a street person (Grant Henderson) wielding a golf club.  The street person bemoans the fact that his guardian angel has abandoned him.  It sounds like he must be crazy, except for the black-clad guardian angel (Amber Bjork) perched on a ladder overhead.  But this angel is watching out for Marisol, and the longer we know Marisol, the more we realize she needs protection.  The world is an ever more menacing place, and Marisol seems to live and work at ground zero for all kinds of trouble.  Later that night, the Angel comes to Marisol and explains that she also must abandon her human charge, in order to lead a rebellion against God in heaven.  As the second act begins and troubles continue to mount, Marisol bemoans the fact that her guardian angel has abandoned her, making the person she's talking to very nervous.  Since this is a world the audience knows is inhabited by angels, Marisol seems less crazy.  All of which begs the question, if faith is belief in things unseen, just how crazy is the notion of another unseen, or little seen, world existing alongside, and occasionally intersecting with, our own?

When heaven comes unglued, the earth suffers.  The standard expectations of what constitutes reality get turned inside out, and plagues appear in strange forms.  But perhaps the most unsettling thing about Marisol is that a lot of the bleaker aspects of human existence in this play don't seem all that far off the mark.  It all has an eery resonance with the way we're living, or struggling to live, right now, though the script itself was written back in 1992—before Obama, Afghanistan, Iraq, 9/11 and Bush #2, even Clinton was just getting started.  The obstacles that Marisol and her band of hapless companions find themselves stumbling over aren't at all unfamiliar.  There's a veneer of humor on top, and a powerful stream of poetry pumping through the veins underneath the surface of every scene.  But the dark places that put the meat on the bones of this thing are surprisingly easy to accept, probably because variations on similar themes have become the underpinning of our own daily existence over the last decade and a half. Marisol is an intriguing text to revisit in 2009, and director Carin Bratlie and her team, onstage and off, give it the kind of attention it deserves.

Marisol's fragmented world is reflected in the bits and pieces of wall and window, bed and ladder, which form the moveable spine of Ryan Ripley's set, fleshed out by Julie Johnson and Gabriel Wimmer's prop work.  Normally, multiple scene shifts bug me, but here the time is orchestrated and filled, not just with the movement of furniture, but also the movement of people, in character, sound (by Katharine Horowitz) and light (by Stephanie Drinkard).  These times between link one scene directly to the next and keep the flow of the narrative humming along, filling the space as well as the eyes and ears and brains of the audience.

Rahamim's turn as Marisol, in many ways an innocent forced to finally grow up in the face of daunting circumstances, is a fine piece of work.  Her place on the canvas is pivotal, since all events essentially revolve around her as the title, and central, character. Rahamim shoulders the burden well. Bjork's Angel is suitably mysterious, managing to be both ethereal and sexual in a very down to earth way at the same time (there's a fair amount of two females kissing, if that's an incentive for curious potential audience members). A. Emily Heaney's marvelous costume work helps reinforce the Angel's larger than life persona. Melanie Wehrmacher as Marisol's friend and co-worker June is by turns both victim and victimizer, and the actress pulls off both extremes handily. Noe Tallen gets to play two very different kinds of homeless women, one in rags, and one in furs—neither of whom you want to meet in a dark alley.  As the only man in the cast, Grant Henderson is kept running pretty much from start to finish with a wide range of roles. One of his more notable characters is June's mentally challenged brother Lenny (who later becomes the first man I've ever seen give birth onstage).  he other is the not entirely wheelchair-bound burn victim known as Scar Tissue (with some suitably creepy full-face make-up effects by Crist Ballas). Both these men serve as guides to Marisol as she enters her new reality. Neither is entirely trustworthy, which makes them characters you have to keep your eye on at all times.  I've seen a lot of good acting work in the past from Henderson, but this is some of his best yet. As Scar Tissue, he also gets some of the evening's best poetry, some so good that it ends up scrawled on the wall of the set...

"The moon carries the souls of dead people to heaven
The new moon is dark and empty
It fills up every month with new glowing souls
Then it carries its silent burden to God."

Marisol both the script and the production, is fairly bursting at the seams with theatricality, which makes it compelling viewing. In Rivera, Theatre Pro Rata has found a playwright that truly merits the sort of relentless attention to detail they can bring to bear on a script.  Each moment on stage is full, and I could go on, at length. But really, the point should be, stop reading this review and just go see the production already. Marisol is the kind of theater we don't get enough of, so you shouldn't miss it.

Five stars: Very Highly Recommended

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    Matthew A. Everett's picture
    Matthew A. Everett

    Matthew A. Everett is the playwright in residence for Workhouse Theatre Company, helping with their new play development program The Greenhouse Project and its monthly play reading series the second Tuesday of every month.  June 10's reading is Deborah Yarchun's comedy-drama LARPers.