Lifeline Theatre

The folklore of virtually every culture in the world contains some sort of rationale for an ordinary person suddenly behaving “not at all like himself.” Religious explanations include possession by divine powers, the invocation of spirits from other worlds, and bodily conduction of natural forces. In 20th-century America, where Science reigns as the highest authority, we speak of mental illness, behavioral disorders, and various syndromes as reasons for hitherto-unstartling people acting in noticeably eccentric ways.

In The Promise, Jose Rivera gives us a story with both scientific and theosophical bases. On one level, it tells of Guzman, an old Puerto Rican immigrant working in an airplane factory and living next to a toxic-waste dump on Long Island. A superstitious man who still fertilizes his stunted garden with his own blood, he dreams of acquiring money to raise an army that will liberate his native country from U.S. sovereignty. He also broods over the death of his wife, and claims to converse with her ghost every night, though he’s never forgiven the woman her prenuptial lover. Guzman’s only pleasures are his champion fighting rooster, Malinche; his barely suppressed lust for Lolin, the widow next door; and his gold watch, which he claims keeps him forever young by running backwards. Frustrated by his humble life, he tyrannizes over his two children (his son, Milton, calls him “Stalin” ) and demands that his daughter, Lilia, marry a repulsive old bachelor instead of the young man she loves–ironically, the son of his wife’s first love.

On her wedding day, Lilia is still mourning her lover, who has been murdered, and falls into a psychosomatic trance, during which, she claims, the ghost of her lover takes possession of her. She remains in this helpless state, her father reaping the rewards of the publicity it brings, until Milton forces Guzman to recognize his responsibilities and takes steps to end the feud between the families.

There’s another way to tell the same tale, however, in which Guzman is a conjurer of voodoolike magic. It is through his powers, gleaned from his book of native lore, that he remains young and vital, while his long-ago rival, Alegria, grows old and infirm; and it is through Guzman’s malevolent spells that his daughter’s lover, Carmelo, is killed. In this interpretation Malinche, the pet chicken, is Guzman’s familiar–a demonic servant assisting the sorcerer in his necromancy. And its slaying at the hands of the virtuous Milton is the blow that robs Guzman of his destructive powers, though the coup de grace is administered by Lilia, who smashes the magic watch under her foot after she’s delivered from her coma by Alegria’s exorcism.

Magic. The word sounds strange to us, but the concept is even stranger–it calls up tabloid headlines and vague memories of childhood fancies. Magic separates what our beliefs tell us are two utterly unconnected realms–the material and the spiritual–realms that more pastoral cultures consider close components of a single world.

I have had a few occasions to experience the theater of other cultures within the context of those cultures, occasions when the audience included no Americans other than myself and one or two companions, and have noted that these cultures have little trouble with juxtapositions of the comic and the tragic, the sacred and the profane, the earthly and the fantastic. Life, after all, rarely compartmentalizes itself as neatly as our decorous Cartesian thinking might indicate. Under a more holistic cosmological view, a character’s saying “I had a miraculous vision while taking a piss” does no irreverence to earth or heaven, however absurd it may sound to our ears.

No, magic is not a part of our everyday lives–but if The Promise is to be understood as more than a sordid study of an extremely sick family, then we empirical, materialistic, skeptical, modern adults must believe in magic. We must fear for Milton’s life as he duels with what we know to be a satanic being, as we must share Guzman’s terror and dread at being shut up in a coffin with a corpse. Making a modern audience believe is no easy proposition, but Lifeline Theatre manages it. And their simple, ingenuous presentation is somehow much more convincing than the elephantine fustiness of Victory Gardens’ Pecong last season, which also tried to catch up audiences in dreamlike fantasy and succeeded only in putting them to sleep (and snaffled no less than four Jeff nominations this year for its efforts).

The most noteworthy example of how Lifeline manages to accomplish so much with so little is the casting of a dancer, Monica Barrock, as Malinche (the name means “malicious one”). On Lifeline’s tiny stage, this one small woman, fringe-festooned arms and legs flailing, seems as monstrous as a griffin; and even her feet, in their high-heeled flamenco slippers, stamp with such fury as to leave no doubt in our minds that this is a creature capable of crippling, killing, and driving men mad. Other performances succeed in the same manner–we believe that Milton’s new boots are enchanted, as he says, because his whole appearance changes after he puts them on. And we believe that Carmelo’s ghost inhabits Lilia’s body because she suddenly moves and speaks like him rather than herself. By presenting us with the evidence of magic and forcing us to use our imaginations, Lifeline draws us into Rivera’s world, where the mundane and the fantastic are equally true; and our seeing the wires that drop a paper flower down into a tree make the flower no less supernatural in our eyes.

A spell as fragile as this is easily broken. If we are to believe in the magic, the actors must believe even harder; and the entire cast of The Promise, under the direction of Meryl Friedman, is to be commended in the highest degree for their unshakable seriousness and unshakable humor. Michael Garcia as Guzman paints a fine portrait of a man, only human, given superhuman powers. Ralph Flores plays some nice contrasts in his dual roles as the powerful Alegria and a befuddled wedding priest. Felipe Camacho is equally versatile as Lilia’s two suitors, the gentle, romantic Carmelo and the gross and oafish Hiberto–though he’s slightly better in the latter role, which offers more opportunity for invention. Doris DiFarnecio makes an exquisite Lilia, moving with spun-silk sensitivity and spun-steel conviction through the most intense adoration, depression, despair, anger, and–ultimately–resolve. James Sie is exuberantly and boyishly heroic as the chivalrous Milton, while Tracy Gurtatowski provides comic relief and sympathetic support as the down-to-earth Lolin.

Rebecca Hamlin’s twilight-colored set walks a sure, confident line between the reality of a backyard in Long Island and the unworldliness of an altar to pagan deities, as does Peter Gottlieb’s lighting and Joe Cerqua’s music and sound designs. Finally, Rob Rahn’s choreography combines dance and martial movement to create displays of physical agility whose sweeping abandon is all the more stunning for the restricted stage space.

A Puerto Rican colleague tells me that the sort of promise referred to in the play’s title is not simply an ordinary contract between mortals but a solemn pact with the great forces of the universe, to which the very gods and saints bear witness. From its first ominous foreshadowings to its last memory-searing image, Rivera’s The Promise stands as a parable reminding us of the terrible price paid by any man who would put asunder those whom God has joined together.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.