Oh, what can ail thee, knight at arms,Alone and palely loitering
The sedge is withered from the lake
And no birds sing...
I met a lady in the meads.
Full beautiful--a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
-- from "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," by John Keats
The female form has always provided fertile ground for the male imagination. Myth and literature are full of mysterious women -- fairies, witches, goddesses, seductresses, representatives of the eternal feminine and the eternal mother, destroyers and givers of life. One theme tends to remain constant in all of these stories: The man who encounters one of these enchanted women is changed forever.
At the beginning of Cloud Tectonics, a play by Jose Rivera, a pregnant woman stands on the street in the middle of a pelting rainstorm. A man stops to pick her up. In an odd bit of reversal (in much mythology, the man represents the sun, the woman the moon), he is Anibal de la Luna, while she, it turns out, is Celestina del Sol. Since Celestina has no destination and tells him only that she's looking for the father of her baby, Anibal takes her to his home. As they walk into the house, the clocks stop. Over the course of the night, she tells him many things: that she lives outside time; that she's 54 years old and has been pregnant for two years; that her parents died at the moment she conceived her child (with Rodrigo Cruz, "a very handsome and dishonest man"); that she's hungry and thinks constantly about sex. Outside, the rain intensifies and sirens cry. Inside, Celestina and Anibal create a sweet, dreamy place in which only the reality of her earthiness and beauty and his growing fascination with her exist.
Their peace is twice interrupted by Anibal's brother, Nelson. He first enters in military fatigues after an apparent six-year absence to say goodbye to his brother and falls instantly in love with Celestina, asking her to wait for him, talking to and soothing the restive child in her belly. He leaves the couple to resume their timeless discourse, only to return some twenty minutes later, grief-stricken and physically broken, having served two years in Bosnia. The brothers quarrel. Celestina slips into the night.
At the end of the play, Anibal and Celestina encounter each other again. He is an old man, she as young and beautiful as ever. She cradles a child in her arms. What would it have been like, she wonders, if she'd been able to love Anibal at every stage of his life, from chubby babyhood to the wrinkled old age he now inhabits? Perhaps she did, the play implies.
Curious Theatre Company has given Rivera's play a spare and sensitive production. Director Chip Walton, working with scene designer Daniel Guyette and Braden Stroup, technical director, has achieved technical miracles in a small space and on a limited budget. Aided by William Temple Davis's lighting, water slides against a wall of glass panels to suggest rain. Anibal's small, tidy home is carefully evoked; its specificity helps support and buoy some of the more ethereal effects -- the ascending ladder, the bed floating among clouds. Above all, the classical guitar music chosen by Matthew Morgan transports the viewer to a more luminous reality.
Bethany LaVoo is Celestina, and her warmth and vitality ground a figure that could otherwise seem fey and insubstantial. Robert Ham is a strong, caring Anibal; some of his best acting work is silent, as when he gazes at Celestina with a mixture of skepticism, puzzlement and wonder. Adrian Benedetti's performance as Nelson is not quite at the same level. At the beginning, it's hard to understand his blurted-out lines; he lacks the others' finesse and sense of control.
Rivera's script is far from perfect. Sometimes it tries too hard, over-explaining, belaboring concepts that would be better hinted at or allowed to slip quietly under the viewer's skin. What is time? Celestina asks in a long and typical aria. What does it smell like, feel like? Does it taste like steak? It's as if Rivera felt he could unravel the ultimate truth if only he threw enough words at it. But what words can't do, images can: a pregnant woman in the rain, a city (of angels, no less) facing destruction. Many of the best moments in the play are visual -- a long, silent and sensual seduction, beautifully realized by LaVoo and Ham; the slow ascent up the ladder that follows.
But Cloud Tectonics does leave an aftertaste, a glimpse into a mode of being that's loving, peaceful and, yes, timeless.
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