According to the first version of the war in heaven, Michael and his angels fought, and Satan fell like lightning from the sky. God won. Not so in Jose Rivera's apocalyptic Marisol, in which God loses, in part because he's already allowed all hell to break loose.
Now being presented in a regional premiere by the Denver Center Theatre Company, Rivera's complex tale argues that God has grown old and senile and has allowed Earth to become a human cesspool. So guardian angels desert their posts to take up arms against him and spread his blood through the galaxy to renew it--sort of a neopagan, "kill-the-king," semi-Marxist, anti-Catholic kind of thing. Despite a highly competent cast, another wonderfully evocative set by Andrew V. Yelusich and Rivera's provocative theme, his anorexic cosmology doesn't quite cut it--too much atmosphere, not enough substance.
Rivera's metaphor for hell is New York. The title character is a middle-class Puerto Rican woman who has been saved from a variety of torments by her own personal angel. That angel comes in a dream to warn Marisol (sensitively portrayed by Clea Rivera) that all the angels must leave Earth to fight the celestial battle. Alone and afraid, Marisol has only just narrowly escaped death--or has she? Playwright Rivera favors the theatrical school of magic realism, and nothing in his world is certain.
All her pious Catholicism can't save Marisol once the angel departs. When she goes to her job in Brooklyn where she edits science books, a madman breaks into her office and threatens her. Her colleague and friend, June, saves her, and the two women decide to join forces to protect each other. They go home to June's apartment, where they find June's brother Lenny, who, as luck would have it, is insane.
Well, things go from bad to worse. Lenny hits June over the head with a golf club, making her as crazy as he is himself. In the second act Marisol steps out her front door and into an amorphous nightmare where homeless people are set afire by wandering death squads and Nazi youth--including a marauding June. Rape and murder linger behind every corner, while even the rich are picked up and tortured without mercy for exceeding their credit-card limits.
As one audience member put it, "That's the best argument I've ever seen for not living in New York." Good point. Of course, the problems described by Rivera--ecological disasters, man's inhumanity to woman and the chronic misery of the many--aren't exactly limited to the five boroughs. And unfortunately, Rivera beats us over the head so much with his political points that he never has time for the human dimension.
Even Marisol isn't a fully realized character; in fact, the most interesting moment of the play belongs to Lenny (played with skill and heart by David Adkins). Rivera's feminist tendencies are here most sympathetically realized when Lenny shows up pregnant and frightened and gives birth on stage to a dead child.
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And if one takes Rivera's war on God as a metaphor for the overthrow of the patriarchal religious systems of the West, one is still left with the problem of what to do with the angels. The playwright doesn't imply that they're delusions, and so they either have to stand for some spiritual realm or for an elite group capable of delivering human beings from their torments. If they are meant to imply spiritual reality, they don't. If they are meant to represent some elite fighting machine rising up in revolution to save the world, he never lets us in on just who is wise enough to do that kind of good. After all, Hitler, Pol Pot and Stalin thought they knew what was best for the rest of us.
At the end of the play, Rivera tells us that once God is dead, human beings will have a new place in the universe. But nowhere does he imply that acid rain, "the war on children," Nazi atrocities or the absolute degradation of the culture and the individual is anybody's fault--it's all God's fault or the system's fault. All the evil in the world is blamed on some cosmological "system," and all the earthbound innocents are victims who can't change a thing.
And Rivera never adequately answers one question: If nobody is responsible for his own actions, what difference does it make if Earth survives at all? Rivera implies that we don't need God, but he also suggests that man is helpless. His muddy cosmology is supposed to make poetic sense, but it isn't rich enough to do that.
At least Rivera takes on the cosmos, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of new American playwrights. In his own way, he's trying to make sense of all the suffering and all the hate and violence. If he makes his audience think a little about these things, he'll have accomplished something--even if it isn't quite enough.