Where Angels Fear to Tread: Del Cerro plays a warm Marisol in a cold world.
Where Angels Fear to Tread: Del Cerro plays a warm Marisol in a cold world.

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The pre-millennial tension that gripped America in the 1990s gave rise to a pair of cultural obsessions that still defy rational explanation: 1) angels; and 2) denim shorts for men.

We can thank the vagaries of fashion for consigning knee-length jeans to their rightful place in the dustbin of history. Ironically, what seems to have ended America’s New Age-y fascination with cherubim and seraphim was, well, a new age. For most of the ’90s, angels were everywhere: in the outfield, on Oprah, floating around Kirsty MacColl’s house, or given flesh (in abundance) by Della Reese on the CBS Saturday-night lineup. Then the new century dawned, and any talk of angels, guardian or otherwise, suddenly seemed to bear all the cultural relevancy of the macarena.

But you can see why a playwright might find something potent and allusive in angelic symbology, which speaks in a neatly simultaneous way to such American fixations as freedom, faith, and the use or abuse of power. That’s certainly true of Jose Rivera’s complex and surreal Marisol, in which an angel and an apocalypse figure prominently.

The angel in question, played in Forum Theatre’s production by Holly Bass, is the celestial protector of the titular Marisol (Veronica del Cerro), a young copy editor. It appears to Marisol in a dream to inform her that, after saving her life thousands of times over the years, it’s abandoning her side to take up arms against an infirm and distracted God. And here’s where the apocalypse comes in—turns out God’s forgetfulness has allowed the universe to wither and rot. The moon is gone, the sun never rises, roaming skinheads burn homeless people alive, and at least one of the most basic underpinnings of the human reproductive system has been subverted. With her guardian angel gone, Marisol finds herself abruptly alone in a dystopia, beset by a series of dangerous, mentally unstable individuals.

The play was generally well-received during its off-Broadway run in 1993. Which is notable, because at that time, just across town, another play with similar millennial themes (and a much more expensive angel) was earning plaudits of its own. No one could ever mistake Rivera’s grimy urban fable for Tony Kushner’s grandly ambitious two-part epic Angels in America, but the narrative engine of both works is the same: the abrupt realization that the old rules of American life no longer apply—a shattering fact that’s cause for both fear and hope.

If Forum’s staging seems more enraptured by the fear than the hope, you can appreciate why: Rivera’s script is a dark, unsettling thing, and the company is keen to invest the proceedings with a sense of dread. At this, director Alexander Strain succeeds—albeit so thoroughly that he permits very little light to escape at all. Intentional or not, this has the effect of casting a pall over the script’s moments of humor. Jokes that should deflate the tension tend to get lost in the pervading gloom before they can manage to do so.

But man, you sure do feel the threat hanging over del Cerro’s Marisol, whether in a series of twitchy strangers played by Brandon McCoy or in the amorous attention of Lenny (Patrick Bussink), the brother of a co-worker. Bussink does fine, deeply creepy work here: Watch how he twists his body when presenting Marisol with a small sculpture, imbuing an ostensibly sweet moment with a sinister undercurrent.

As in Rivera’s References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, staged a couple years back by Rorschach, Marisol’s language is frequently rich and lovely. Here, however, that language, like the world it asserts, flits in and out of focus over the course of the evening. We can chalk some of that up to the play’s reliance on dream logic, of course, but when so much of the narrative unfolds in extended, elegantly written monologues by characters who simply stand and deliver, you can’t help thinking of missed opportunities.

Especially once you consider how many big, capital-t-Theatrical set pieces are on display. In Casey Kaleba’s energetic, precise fight choreography, golf clubs whistle so closely past the actors’ heads you’ll find yourself ducking in sympathy. Tobias Harding’s gritty set, which splits the audience down the middle, comes alive when Andrew Griffin shines lurid red gels through the torn plastic sheeting of its walls. Heather Lockard’s costumes evince a grubbiness that feels authentic, even when the script calls for the fantastical: Her angel wings are fabulously filthy, greasy-looking things hung with garbage bags and cigarettes packs. And just beneath it all, composer/sound designer Christopher Baine constructs a continuous soundscape that’s subtly, slyly unsettling.

All of which more or less makes up for the fact that the play progresses in a fitful, abstract manner without ever finding any real momentum. Its disparate elements glancingly connect but never cohere—Bass’ angel all but disappears after its initial speech, for no reason I can pinpoint—and the play’s mythology asserts itself so earnestly it can seem overwrought. At such times, you’ll be grateful to have a warm, emotionally available presence like del Cerro’s Marisol to root for and to worry over.

Next season, the Forum folks are tackling that other pre-millennial angel play, in all its bigger, longer, and uncut glory. But it would be a mistake to think of this production as a dry run. Marisol offers its own insights, even if they’re a bit more psychologically opaque than they really need to be. By mounting Rivera’s tough, uncompromising play now, Forum gives it the chance to step out from Kushner’s long shadow and stand on its own. But as staged by Strain, Marisol stands as a dark and oddly cheerless work that, perhaps, was always better suited to the shadows anyway.