Cigarettes and Moby-Dick

Latino Chicago Theater Company

By Justin Hayford

After enduring Latino Chicago Theater Company’s production of Migdalia Cruz’s Fur last winter, I couldn’t imagine why the company was devoting its entire season to her work. In Fur the lovelorn sideshow freak Citrona, a bearded lady with a full-body pelt, spends the evening slinking about miserably in a cage while her sleepy owner does his damnedest to make her fall in love with him. With its simple plot and prefab emotional landscape, it seemed more failed TV pilot than dramatic exploration of obsession’s beastly side.

But with Latino Chicago’s tantalizing production of Cruz’s newest creation, Cigarettes and Moby-Dick, I’m beginning to see the light. While Fur reduces the exotic to the pedestrian, this play elevates the ordinary to the hypnotic through some of the richest, most scatologically lyrical language you’re likely to hear on any stage. I’ve now got a handle on why director Juan A. Ramirez declares in the program that Cruz is his hero.

Once again Cruz’s subject is obsession, from the street-smart Miranda’s uncontrollable lust for sailors roaming Manhattan to the rootless sailors’ singular devotion to their own masturbatory fantasies to expatriate Lila’s suicidal infatuation with Miranda–and with Marilyn Monroe. In Fur Cruz felt compelled to drag in a bit of gimmicky science fiction to give the play’s passions some stakes, but here she wisely lets the passions take their course. And they cripple, debilitate, and overwhelm characters who don’t need metal cages around them to understand that they’re trapped.

Cruz doesn’t have much of a story to tell, which is the single biggest problem with Cigarettes and Moby-Dick. Miranda and Lila, a couple doomed from the get-go, don’t get much of anywhere, raking each other over the same emotional coals for the better part of two hours. But in a sense the spiraling antiplot illuminates the play’s central theme: in Cruz’s imagination, indulged passions tend to circle back on themselves even as they liberate the corseted and three-piece-suited parts of our souls. Obsessions result in fixations, not flow. All of the sailors Miranda pursues, for example, are named John, and one sailor often replaces another in the middle of a scene. They’ve been fixed by Miranda’s devouring need, the way a centerfold model has been stapled in place to satisfy the pornographer’s desire. The sailors have been reduced to those elements Miranda finds useful and alluring–a uniform, a haircut, a smile.

The same is true of Miranda under Lila’s gaze. Lila is mad for her for no particular reason. We never know much about their relationship; we rarely see the couple do anything but lie languidly together on a bed or sofa. What matters is that Lila’s infatuation is gargantuan: and thanks to Meighan Gerachis’s exquisitely controlled intensity, it is. In essence, Miranda could be anyone.

In a lesser writer’s hands, the sketchiness of this central relationship might make their love feel contrived. But Cruz turns the sketchy into the emblematic through the pure power of language, giving the relationship a desperate, elevated lyricism. Love, Lila insists, is “a disease in your most delicate folds.” It kills more efficiently and dependably than cigarettes. And like the rest of Ramirez’s committed cast, Gerachis lets Cruz’s marvelous words do most of the acting for her. She never needs to resort to cheap emotional display. “She is in my lungs now,” Gerachis states. “I didn’t smoke until I met her.” No acting, only the admission of a truth. Then she takes a long drag on her cigarette, lungs literally filling with desire.

That inhale is the kind of real gesture that Cruz employs with great skill. Performing a gesture like that, an actor need expend no energy convincing an audience that the moment is true–because it simply can’t be faked. These poetic actions make Cruz’s repeated forays into narrative embellishment seem stilted and superfluous. While Miranda flirts with a sailor on a park bench, for example, a second sailor sits behind them and explains what’s going on, telling us that the other sailor is nervous or that Miranda is excited to see his perfectly hairless legs. Each bit of narration not only overstates the obvious but drains the erotic tension from the scene, as though a tactless neighbor were interrupting a candlelit dinner every few minutes. But when Cruz lets her characters return to gestures–Miranda ends the scene by tucking a lit match into her panties–well, it’s time to break out the cold washcloths.

The sensuality of Cigarettes and Moby-Dick is overwhelming because it’s dangerous–and messy. In the tradition of so many great Latin American and Spanish writers (Fernando Arrabal, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez), love is as much about spit and shit as it is about sweetness and light. In Jardin de pulpos, for example, the signature piece of Mexico City’s world-renowned theater company Taller del Sotano, the family’s matriarch waxes elegiac over her dead husband and his uncontrolled flatulence. In Cigarettes and Moby-Dick scato-romanticism reaches its epiphany when Miranda, topless and washing her breasts in water from a basin before her, thrills at the memory of finding a used condom by her bed and licking the sweet, dried semen from inside it. In a moment like this, Cruz inspires a delicious libidinal delirium. While the idealized American body has been sanitized, scrubbed, shaved, and scented, Cruz rubs bodily fluids all over her audience and fills the room with rank odors. Catching her fever is not only dizzying but rejuvenating. It’s a way of rediscovering wholeness.

And wholeness–whether sensual, emotional, or psychological–seems to be what Cruz is after. Few contemporary American playwrights are. As in life, nothing on Cruz’s stage is schematic or straightforward. She doesn’t weed out the contradictions of human behavior in order to make a point. She dramatizes completeness. The tangle of conflicting impulses binding her characters makes its own subtle point; love is an octopus with 200 arms.

Now Cruz must find a way to extricate herself from its grip, for the tangle has a stranglehold on her ability to keep the drama moving. Cigarettes and Moby-Dick is like a dense fog–mysterious and seductive but also unchanging and formless. Almost every scene feels like it could be the first, the last, or any in between. Cruz may have more interest in complexity than linearity, but she needs to find a way to let that complexity evolve and progress. Then I’ll need more than a cold washcloth to make it through her next play. I’ll need a team of paramedics.