Guinea Pig Solo


at Chopin Theatre

References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot

Bailiwick Repertory

In 2002 the killing of four military wives within six weeks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, by their husbands–three of whom had recently served in Afghanistan, and two of whom also killed themselves–were quickly labeled an “anomaly” by military officials. But in dramatic literature the archetype of the returning soldier who can’t readjust to domestic life is far from anomalous, as two current Chicago-premiere productions demonstrate. Jose Rivera’s References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot features a veteran of the first gulf war while Brett C. Leonard’s Guinea Pig Solo focuses on a troubled combat vet from the current war in Iraq.

Rivera and Leonard both focus on Latino soldiers–specifically, Puerto Rican men. What gives both plays, but particularly Leonard’s, dramatic heft is the knowledge that these veterans of our wars of choice are marginalized by race, ethnicity, and the lack of opportunity in their own country of origin, which has itself been occupied and colonized. Both protagonists seek salvation in the love of their wives. And though the two plays differ significantly in tone, taken together they provide a timely, disturbing meditation on what happens when a war comes home.

Leonard’s play is the more visceral and far-reaching, perhaps because of its historical immediacy–after all, there’s no end in sight for our current conflict while the first gulf war was over relatively quickly. But Leonard’s world is also much darker and grittier than the magic-realist universe Rivera creates. In our first glimpse of Leonard’s soldier–the isolated, enraged Jose Solo, who’s returned to Spanish Harlem–he’s a shadow behind a scrim, running as fast as he can on a treadmill and intoning “love and be loved.” Sure, the image is more than a bit heavy-handed, but it’s also very effective at setting the tone for this primal scream of a show.

Leonard’s borrowings from Georg Buchner’s 1837 unfinished masterpiece, Woyzeck, are adroit. Like Buchner’s protagonist, Jose works as a barber, though he also sells junk food from a cart. He’s estranged from his wife, Vivian, and their preadolescent son, whose uncommunicative demeanor and repetitive actions–bouncing a ball against the wall of his apartment, for instance–suggest autism. Like Woyzeck, Jose is subjected to capricious medical testing: he’s part of a sleep-deprivation study that his doctor insists will help the military (a chilling thought in the context of the torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay). When Jose sees Vivian dancing with a handsome cop at a nightclub, his slender hold on sanity snaps and he tries to win back by force what he believes to be his by right–in other words, he applies the logic of military intervention to his domestic situation.

Jose’s desire for an uncomplicated, perfect love is as universal as the desire for a good war. But since neither exists, the quest can leave a lot of victims along the way. Yet Leonard’s play is far from a one-note antiwar polemic; he also focuses on the unrealistic romantic expectations fostered by pop culture. Jose’s affection for pop standards comes up a few times–Sammy Davis Jr.’s rendition of “Blame It on My Youth” effectively underscores a couple of scenes, and Charlie, the grizzled cop who takes on Jose’s rehabilitation as a personal project, tells him that “it’s a Louis Armstrong world if you want it to be.” Charlie considers accommodation to reality the key to finding that wonderful world, but he fails to see all of Jose–he calls him Joe “because you’re in America now.”

Anthony Moseley’s inspired direction, Dale Rivera’s gut-wrenching performance as Jose, and an ensemble well attuned to the material’s cinematic shifts–rapid cutting and blackouts–make this one of the most emotionally effective productions I’ve seen this year. It’s greatly enhanced by Sam Porretta’s scenic and video design. Near the beginning of the play, we see Jose boxed in by steel bars as he pleads with passersby to purchase his street-cart wares. In the first act, Vivian’s apartment is a cramped space atop a platform overlooking the action, and as she and their young son sit silently smoking (one of the play’s more startling images), we get the sense of a stuffy room infused with the expectation that something–anything–must happen. Sometimes the action onstage is refracted by a video camera to a scrim above, so we get a disorienting overhead perspective, enhancing the idea that Jose and his family are test subjects and the targets, however accidental, of a military operation with little use for messed-up vets. Fine work is provided by Sandra Delgado as the sensuous, sad Vivian; Micah Smyth as Jose’s loopy friend Gary, whose discursive observations on Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln are a comic highlight; and Len Bajenski as the equivocal voice of reason, Charlie.

Jose Rivera’s References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot receives a handsome, intelligent staging, courtesy of director Sean Graney. Rivera–who recently scored an Academy Award nomination for the Motorcycle Diaries screenplay, is best known in theater for his play Marisol, a postapocalyptic portrait of America that focuses on a fierce but compassionate Latina. The wife in References to Salvador Dali, Gabriela, is also a ferociously loving woman who longs for the touch of her soldier husband, Benito. But the man who returns to their desert home outside Barstow, California, is a stranger in many ways. Both Gabriela and Benito have been changed irrevocably by their separation–she’s started studying the history of Islam (“I had an affair with a man named Mohammad,” she taunts him at one point), and he’s seen things in the war he wishes he could forget. Still, he wants to continue in the military since it’s his best chance for establishing middle-class status in America.

Rivera’s writing is cleverly whimsical, and his images are as inspired and off-kilter as Dali’s surrealist paintings. The opening scene anthropomorphizes Gabriela’s horny housecat and the coyote who lusts for her as both prey and partner–an interesting metaphor for the clash between homebody and warrior. Later the moon gets up on top of a refrigerator, sawing a violin and decrying Shakespeare’s description of him as an inconstant woman. A 14-year-old boy next door fantasizes about Gabriela. Graney and his cast tenderly convey the longing for sexual communion that permeates the script.

Ivan Vega as Benito is a careful mixture of wounded pride and a stolid sense of duty, and his charismatic performance as the moon is charming. Marsha Villanueva makes a dynamic, sympathetic Gabriela, and the humorous interactions between Nicole Adelman’s Cat and John Byrnes’s Coyote are well choreographed.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that this production opened the same week as Leonard’s more blistering look at a returning vet–by comparison the stakes in Rivera’s play don’t feel as urgent. But in its quieter way, this well-crafted production–which features Graney’s own flexible set design and stellar lighting by Jared Moore–makes the same point. Those who join the “army of one” often have a difficult time adjusting to what another great chronicler of the postwar experience, Kurt Vonnegut, calls “the universe of two.” When we send soldiers to war, entire families end up on the front lines.

Guinea Pig Solo

When: Through 4/2: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM

Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division

Price: $18-$25

Info: 312-226-9633

References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot

When: Through 4/10: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3:30 PM

Where: Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont

Price: $22-$25

Info: 773-883-1090

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia, David Zak.