Between racial politics, border wars, social justice, domestic drama, and September 11th, “Woman On Fire,” by Marisela Treviño Orta, has a lot on its mind.
Beyond its weighty issues, the premise is fairly simple: a woman living in isolation near the US-Mexico border is haunted by the ghost of woman who died trying to cross it.
The plot’s connection to its source material of “Antigone” is largely minor, beyond the need to bury a corpse lost to a no man’s land and the two repeated and rather ham-fisted statements that “there are laws greater man’s” that only lacked a campy wink to the audience upon delivery.
Overseen by director Valli Rivera, the tech and design of “Woman on Fire” is breathtaking. The circular window of the simple adobe house transforms into a projection screen for multitudinous images: tessellating marigold, the haunting morphs of the burning woman. The small touches, like the bouquet being quietly lit onstage during intermission, demonstrate the attention and passion placed in this project.
The cast is delightfully small, boasting only four actors total.
The bulk of the performance falls to Meggan Gomez as Juanita, a woman torn between worlds. She is Chicano, but pale skinned; living, but speaks to the dead. Gomez barely leaves stage for the entirety, and most of that time is in a state of high anxiety. After the show, you just want to hug her.
Gomez’s strength as performer is clear as she shoulders the emotional weight of the show, but also showcases her natural comedic talent. Physical jokes are weaved effortlessly in her performance throughout. Throwaway lines that might have been forgotten (the deadpan delivery towards her ghostly tormentor, “If I do it, will you go away?”) are transformed into instant comedy. The early scenes are difficult to rev up to, but her dominance is clear as the show is able to be viewed as a whole.
The other parts are small in comparison, though all very enjoyable. Michel Ellis plays Jared, Juanita’s emotionally distant husband. Jared is numb and cold, but Ellis still chooses his moments well to make Jared human and relatable. Jared bears little subtlety as the anglo border patrol officer, but still finds ways to redemption.
The brief lightness in the play comes from the scenes between Juanita and her darker-skinned sister, Araceli, played by Diane Villagas. Gomez and Villagas have wonderful chemistry together and their shared scenes add needed warmth to the heavy play. Araceli provides most the written jokes, but also the point of view the audience is intended to walk away with.
Alicia Lueras Moldonado is captivating as Paola, the ghost of the woman who died crossing the border. She has few lines and instead expresses herself through tight, inhuman movement. She never distracts as she hobbles about the stage, invisible to all but Juanita, but is always worth the audience’s attention.
The script itself, however, strangely feels like a first draft. Many lines are awkwardly worded, though well navigated by the performers using them. One scene ends with a goofy line delivered to a visiting doctor presumably offstage, but a character who never actually appears, nor affects the plot in any way. Jared even at one point snarls that Juanita would better be served being haunted by his dead brother. It’s rather hard not to laugh.
The most egregious choice the script makes is its propensity for lengthy soliloquies to no one. All the characters seem to have this habit. The monologues serve little purpose and are almost universally awkwardly placed. Araceli, for example, continuously calls home to simply leave rambily voicemails. They are as baffling as they are lacking in relevance to the plot.
The monologues stand apart from the rest of the play in tone and oddity, immediately breaking audience immersion, but more to the point, they lack the strength and connective tissue of the dialogues. With only four characters, the precious few relationships are the emotional being of the show.
The core of the story and its characters are certainly strong. Many textual connections from death, race, liminal spaces, or metaphoric burning tortillas are all firmly in place.
Not all the monologues are a complete waste. Jared’s final piece about his brother is quite moving, but could easily be half the length. But the undoubtedly the best monologue is Juanita coming to terms with her issues of race and the lightness of her skin. Gomez’ performance is coupled with Paola passively listening with an expression of despondent agony. It has a nice “Fuck you, I’m dead” feeling to contextualize the entire scene.
Even now, our current 2016 election cycle easily reminds us that the issues of the border are alive and not so well. What “Woman on Fire” has to say is vitally and politically important: the cost of human life.
Siembra, Latino Theatre Season: Woman on Fire September 29 – October 16 By Marisela Treviño Orta September 29-October 2, October 6-9, & October 13-16, 2016 7:30 pm—Thursday-Saturday 2 pm—Sunday
This production is a world premiere and part of the Latina/o Theatre Commons’ El Fuego Initiative. Presented in partnership with Camino Real Productions. $18 w/ $3 discount for students, seniors, & NHCC, ATG & TLC members; $10 Thursday shows only