Theatre Review: “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot” at the Phoenix

Melissa Solorzano and Noe Montez in "References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot"

Last Thursday night, I met a friend at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis to see Jose’ Rivera’s “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot.”  It was directed by Bryan Fonseca.

It is an intriguing show, odd and sexy as a dream.  I will never look at the moon – or war – in the same way again.

It is also a show that grows on you.  At intermission, my friend said, “Well, I’m not not enjoying it, but…maybe the program will explain what’s going on.”  We went out to look at the display in the lobby after the show, too.  The display gives some background on, and other examples of, magical realism.  It is all very interesting.

However, you don’t really have to know anything scholarly about magical realism to enjoy this show.  You just have to be able to let go of the need for everything to make sense right away or in the way you expect it to.  After all, the title refers to a painter of melting time pieces.  And the play itself is about war and relationships.  Since when have those two items ever made perfect, tidy sense?

Passionate, intelligent Gabriela (Melissa Solorzano) is lonely, frustrated, and bored, living virtually by herself in the California desert while her husband, Benito (Noe Montez), is off at a nearby military base being a soldier. The other soldiers’ wives are not interested in talking about art or science or anything, really, except how to improve their lovemaking skills by practicing on cucumbers while their husbands are away.

Gabriela’s cheerfully innocent 14-year-old neighbor, Martin (Julio Chavez), tries to convince Gabriela to deflower him, but she would rather dance with the rascally, romantic Moon (Matthew Roland.)  Or better yet, practice explaining to her husband that she is not going crazy – the trees really are moving closer to the house – but she needs her life, their life, to be different.

When Benito comes home after being away for several weeks, though, we learn that he has passions and frustrations of his own, and his own reasons for begging Gabriela to let things stay the way they are, in spite of his nightmares.

In the meantime, Gabriela’s prim and protected house Cat (Phebe Taylor) is exploring a hot, forbidden dance with an intoxicating but also ghost-like Coyote (Nate Santana.)  I completely believed him when he promised he could give her orgasms in all of her nine lives.  On the other hand, I also completely believed her when she told him that “no one loves like a house cat.”

There is humor in this piece; it also made me cry.  Other things happen that make it hard to know for sure which part of the story is a dream in Gabriela’s mind and which part is “reality.”  Maybe the whole story is a dream about daily life within a dream about soul-mates.  Maybe the whole audience is dreaming.  Ultimately, that is part of the pleasure of this piece: not knowing for sure. 

Other pleasures include the design elements.  The bizarre shapes and lines in Martin Flynn’s set design are enhanced by the juxtapositions in director Bryan Fonseca’s lighting design, Bryan Fonseca and Matthew Roland’s sound design, and Zach Rosing’s videography.  These include the harsh beating of helicopter blades and the introspective accompaniment of a violin.  The soft yet somehow lush hues of the desert and the stark black-and-white of newsreel images reflected in unexpected places and the sparkly visual essence of the moon’s timelessness.

And be sure to notice what happened to the Phoenix that is usually perched symbolically at the top of the stage!

Caroline Stine’s costume designs provide additional witty layers to the dream.  Cat’s lace, for example, reminds one of Spanish mantillas, even though the lace is on her legs rather than on her head.  The pieces of Benito’s military uniform become props – place holders for him in Gabriela’s bed and more.  The Moon’s white suit dazzles the audience as it does Gabriela.  The Coyote’s brown leather vest reveals both his strong, sexy arms and his vulnerability.  Hair and makeup design by Kelly Skaggs, Niki Hammonds, and Shea Burroughs also fit the characters well.

The dancing segments, especially the one at the end, are lovely.  Choreography is by George Salinas.

I have to give technical director/props manager Christopher Hansen his own paragraph, too.  All that sand!  Hansen also constructed the set.

Dani Norberg is the stage manager as well as the light and sound operator.  John Ronk and Natasha Cox are the run crew.

DePauw University student J. C. Pankratz was the dramaturg for this show.  I knew J.C. even before I started this blog.  I had enjoyed shows that she directed at her high school. I also knew that she has already won awards for her own playwriting and that she was involved with a student theatre group at the Indy Fringe Festival last year and/or the year before.  I asked if I could interview her about what it was like to be the dramaturg for this show.  We talked by phone last Saturday afternoon.

“I had dramaturged…is that a word?…for shows at my school, but this was my first time working with so many professional theatre people,” J.C. told me.  “Everyone was really nice, and really knew what they were doing.  It was interesting to see how all the parts fit together.”

I was curious about what a dramaturg actually does.

“I do research to provide historical and other kinds of background for the director and actors,” J.C. said.  “I ask the director what he wants me to look up, and I respond to actors’ questions.  I go to meetings and convey this research in notes to the cast, or we exchange emails…I fill in the holes.” 

J. C. talked to art history professors at her school about various elements of magical realism, for example, and about specific works by Salvador Dali.  Some of her notes, accompanied by illustrations, can be found on the Phoenix’s website under the “theatre geeks” tab. 

She also looked up information about military bases in general and the specific military base where Benito is stationed.  J.C. provided notes to the director and cast about where the base is, exactly, how many people are there, what they do there, what kinds of classes are offered there, and more – anything to help the cast get a better sense of the context for their work.

“What is the most difficult thing about being a dramaturg?” I asked.

“Hmm…probably the questions for which I can’t find a definitive answer,” J.C. said. 

For example, someone wanted to know what influence the Spanish painter Salvador Dali has had on Latin (i.e. – South American, Mexican, etc.) culture.  Since he was more European than Latin, it is not as if the Latino characters in this play would have automatically been influenced by him growing up, so the actors and designers have to find a different motivation for Salvador Dali’s presence in this play.  Gabriela is an avid reader and takes a lot of continuing education classes.  Maybe she learned about this artist that way.  And/or maybe she learned about him while she and Benito were stationed in Germany.  Their time there comes up in the play as well.

“What do you like best about being a dramaturg?” I asked.

“Meeting new people and doing the research.  It broadens your horizons.  I get to learn about things that I normally would not research on my own.  Plus I like helping out.”

We also talked a little about dramaturgy as a career.  J.C. is majoring in creative writing at DePauw.  “I’d definitely like to work with theatres in literary roles” – i.e., as playwright or dramaturg or director. 

I suspect (and hope) all three!

J.C. thought the Phoenix had used a different student dramaturg for each show this season.  I called director Bryan Fonseca later and asked him to confirm this. 

“We started doing it this season,” Bryan told me.  “We didn’t do it for the Xmas show,” but they have for most of the others.  He hopes to continue tapping area theatre departments in the future.  He contacts the department chairs and asks, “Do you have any students that have both interest in, and talent for, dramaturgy?”

He added, “J.C. is the best one we’ve ever had.”

I laughed in delight, then, and asked if I could quote him.  He gave me permission and added, “She sets the bar now” for future student dramaturgs.

“I’m really glad I did it,” J.C. told me.  “I’m excited to see it all come together.”

Me, too.

“References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot” continues at the Phoenix Theatre through Saturday, May 2, 2009.  Thursday nights are “Cheap Seats Nights,” thanks to Duke Energy.  Call 317-635-PLAY to make a reservation.

Note:  there is adult content in this piece, including love-making on stage.  It is tastefully done but arousing…and would definitely make a child ask questions that couldn’t wait until the car ride home, so find a babysitter if you decide to go see this show.

Note #2:  there will be a FREE staged reading of the play in Spanish at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 3, 2009 at the Phoenix.  A staged reading means that it will be a full production, with costumes, lighting, etc. but the actors will carry scripts.  This intrigues me, too.  I’m going to see if I can fit it into my schedule.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

(Photo above by www.JulieCurryPhotography.com )

3 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot” at the Phoenix”

  1. Hope: I LOVE that you included JC in your review. As Marketing Director at the Phoenix, I put together a lobby display for each show and post material for the “Theatre Geeks” page of our website. JC made my job easy for References… She was a joy to work with and when I received her dramaturgical information, I read it and instantly got a vision for the display. On a side note, thank you for noticing my melting phoenix at the top of the stage.

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