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'Marisol' a Jolt to the Senses : Stage: Jose Rivera delivers his strongest play to date. It is the first in La Jolla Playhouse's two-play FutureFest repertory.

September 18, 1992|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

LA JOLLA — Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

Brooklyn is a war zone. Angels are warring in heaven. God is getting old. Men are having babies and every indication is that the world might be coming to an end.

That is the premise of Jose Rivera's "Marisol," a comedy of terminal devastation that concentrates as many ideas as events into the time it takes to write off the world--and then write it back in.

There is a Panglossian edge to Rivera's brooding tale of a yuppie Latina from Brooklyn named Marisol Perez (Cordelia Gonzalez) who avoids the homeless, fights off potential attackers in the subway, has multiple locks on the door of her barricaded apartment and thanks God regularly and in rhyme for her neighborhood and her nine-to-five job in publishing.

"Marisol" opened Wednesday at the Mandell Weiss Forum on the UC San Diego campus as the first in La Jolla Playhouse's two-play FutureFest repertory. (The second play, Elizabeth Egloff's "The Swan," will be reviewed in Saturday's Times.) And while the "Marisol" text is not much changed since it was seen in an earlier incarnation at Louisville's Humana Festival last March, the emphases, under Tina Landau's uncompromising direction, have shifted. This edition ends on a more hopeful note that also feels more tacked on.

Rivera has acknowledged the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and magic realism on his writing, and the broad apocalyptic canvas in "Marisol" has its portion of metaphysical meddling.

The piece takes place in a context of doomsday destruction technomasterfully implemented by designers Robert Brill (sets) and John Martin (lights): an overpowering jumble of walls that shatter, floors that collapse into mini-sinkholes, subway tracks that tear up, and traffic lights that function long after roads have disappeared.

The trouble starts when Marisol's deus-ex-machina guardian Angel (Esther Scott as Big Mama in urban guerrilla uniform with wings) descends from heaven on her personal elevator to tell Marisol she will no longer be able to watch over her. God is senile. The angels want to seize power. Things will get worse before they get better--unless Marisol wants to join in the revolution.

Marisol won't. Her religion won't let her. But the Angel spoke the truth. A man (Robert A. Owens) pushes his ice cream cone in Marisol's face, and nothing much works out for her after that.

The apocalypse strikes and in a violent series of increasingly surrealistic events, Marisol descends into the chaotic nightmare of an empty world raided by skinheads, where she becomes lost, homeless and hungry. Searching for her best friend June (Susan Berman), she encounters other survivors, including a skinless man (Joseph Urla) and June's sociopathic brother Lenny, who bludgeoned his sister with a golf club.

Lenny, who had a crush on Marisol with whom he "wanted to make babies," is now pregnant and is delivered of a stillborn child.

The superior actors make these improbable events believable, especially Harris who is paradoxically touching and terrifying as the bedeviled Lenny. Berman, in tight skirt and carrot hair, gives a hilarious New Yorky performance as the big-hearted loudmouth June. Urla is a quaking mass of exposed nerves as the man without a skin who can't stand to be touched--except by the soothing Marisol. The latter is played by Gonzalez as a stable Everywoman struggling not to lose her mind when all about her have long ago lost theirs.

Rivera peppers the dialogue with enough satirical irony and topical reference that we keep on laughing right through the misery, but what is his message?

There is a stunningly bitter ending with a mass execution and a dubious ascent into heaven in the beatific glow of a newly crowned Angel. If he is telling us that the angelic revolution succeeded (time for the old to make room for the new) and that there is new hope, what of the fact that it was won at such a cruel and terrible cost? Or is that his comment on all wars?

It may be safer not to search for deeper meaning and simply stick to the more obvious and delectable ironies of the immediate exchanges. Rivera uses his caustic dialogue to toss off pet barbs at anything from the impoliteness of the French to the tactics of TRW, talk about the effects of cultural dispossession and attack whatever bugs him. The list is long, but start with homophobia, censorship and the church.

It may not be quite as rich as one might wish, but it'll do. Even with shortcomings, "Marisol" is not only Rivera's best play to date, but a compelling jolt to the senses.

"Marisol," La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, UC San Diego campus. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Plays Saturday, Thursday,, next Friday,, Sept. 27, 29, 30, Oct. 3, 8, 9, 11, 13-14. Ends Oct. 14, in repertory with "The Swan." $23.75-$29.75; (619) 534-6760, TDD/Voice (619) 534-0351. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Cordelia Gonzalez: Marisol Perez

Esther Scott: Angel

Susan Berman: June

Michael Harris: Lenny, June's Brother

David Fenner; Man With Golf Club

Robert A. Owens: Man With Ice Cream

Amy Scholl: Woman With Furs

Joseph Urla: Man With Scar Tissue

Micha Espinosa: Young Woman

Director, Tina Landau. Playwright, Jose Rivera. Set, Robert Brill. Lights, John Martin. Costumes, Janice Benning. Sound and original music, John Gromada. Fight director, Steve Rankin. Dramaturgy, Robert Blacker. Stage manager, Paul Jefferson. Assistant stage managers, Lori M. Doyle, Kimberly Fisk, Peggy Sasso.

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