What a disappointment! Kent Thompson began his tenure as artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company with a terrific production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons and a hugely funny version of Feydeau's classic farce, A Flea in Her Ear. But the third offering under his tenure, Jose Cruz Gonzalez's September Shoes, is flat, sentimental and poorly written. When Thompson originally announced his intention of mounting more new plays, and more work by female and minority playwrights, the air was full of huzzahs. But there was a corollary: We expected those plays to be excellent.
September Shoes tells the story of a couple, Gail and Alberto, who are traveling to the desert town of Dolores, where they grew up. They are going to the funeral of Gail's aunt, the proprietor of a Chinese-Mexican restaurant (a touch I enjoyed); the aunt brought Gail up, but Gail's feelings toward her are ambivalent. Alberto, too, has his problems. His younger sister, Ana, was killed in a traffic accident while they were in their teens.
In Dolores, the couple encounters two people. There's the cemetery groundsman, Huilo, who tends the graves with care and carves a list of all the town's dead on what looks like a tall, red pillar. Only it turns out this isn't a pillar, but one leg of an enormous chair Huilo has built so that when God returns to earth, he'll have somewhere to rest his -- presumably equally enormous -- backside. There's also Cuki, the maid at the hotel where Gail and Alberto are staying. She steals shoes, takes them home and nails them to her wall. Some of the shoes on that wall belong to her husband and children, all of whom were killed. In a traffic accident. Hmmm. In addition to the chair leg and the shoes, there's a ghost girl who appears in several guises: as Alberto's dead sister; as Cuki's dead husband; even as Gail's aunt.
Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 17, 303- 893-4100, www.denvercenter.org
As the title makes clear, shoes are the play's animating concept. Cuki cherishes them. She believes she can read character and destiny in their worn contours. She ruminates on the words "soul" and "sole." She tells Gail that she has a hole in her shoe, meaning in her mind, heart and life. She evokes a Holocaust photograph of a mound of shoes that she once saw, and comments that they made her think of twisted, mutilated bodies. Well, of course they did. And once she's added that the mound seemed to touch the clouds, she's apparently exhausted her own and her playwright's insight into the matter.
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Gonzalez simply doesn't seem to have the love of language or the skill to evoke the feelings he wants to evoke. The script is full of clunkers. When someone says "Bad things happen here to good people" or "Touch me. Heal me. Please," you'd like to think the playwright is being ironic, appropriating the empty pop-culture phrases in the service of irony or surprise, but he's using them in all sincerity. If the play's action is ever leavened by a glimmer of humor, it's that whimsical laughing-in-the-midst-of-grief kind of humor. For the most part, the characters are ciphers.
The plot is also paper-thin. For instance: Little sister Ana wanted to go to Alberto's school dance. Because Alberto broke his promise to take her, she hid in the back of his truck. Once she'd made herself known and they were riding together, a tire burst. The girl was killed while standing in the middle of the road, waving to an oncoming truck for help. The adult Alberto is eaten up with guilt, because if only he'd taken her to the dance as he promised...Wait a minute. If he had taken Ana to the dance, she'd still have been beside him in the rattling old truck, and everything would have played out as it did.
Christopher Acebo's set evokes the flat desert sun, but some mist and shadow, some sense of mystery, might have helped the production more. Gail is the most realized of the characters, and Karmín Murcelo, who plays her, gives the best performance of the evening, producing as much nuance and specificity as the script allows. John Herrera's Alberto represents the next most-skilled performance. He's solid and believable, though his clothes are far too shlubby for a doctor who drives a red Porsche. When she's swept away by emotion -- and the second act is sodden with it -- Wilma Bonet is a convincing Cuki, but I think the only way to make this role believable would be to play against the deadening cuteness of the lines.