Imagine a New York City with no buildings, no streets; homeless people being attacked by neo-Nazis; where the sun fails to rise and men become pregnant and give birth.
This is the world of “Marisol,” a play by Jose Rivera, where the ills of civilization prevail as the angels try to overthrow a senile God.
Virginia Anderson, the most recent full-time faculty member of the Theatre Program, selected the avant-garde play as her first directing project at Cal Poly. She received her Ph. D. from the drama department of Tufts University, where her dissertation was titled “Beyond Angels: The AIDS Epidemic and the Broadway Theatre.”
Choosing to present “Marisol” is in keeping with her focus on “theater for social justice,” Anderson said during an interview from her Cal Poly office. The play deals with such crises as homelessness, economic collapse, and environmental chaos. People in general, and especially in the college and university setting, are apt to be sheltered and complacent about what is happening, she said.
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“This is a great opportunity to shine a light on these issues.”
In the play, Marisol, a 26-year old Puerto Rican woman living in the Bronx, is a publishing assistant who leads a relatively ordinary life. After her guardian angel tells her that the angels are planning a rebellion against God, both social and natural order begin to deteriorate, and Marisol’s life spirals out of control.
“The angel tells her that the universal body is sick, God is old and senile, not attuned to what is happening in the world,” Anderson explained. Like the other issues in the play, homelessness becomes real.
“People turn away from it and comfortably read about it in the news, but not be in the thick of it, as Marisol finds herself,” Anderson said.
Questions about religion are also implied. Faith implies that everything will be all right. The angels are suggesting that people have to take responsibility for their own world.
The play has offered rich opportunities for teaching and discussions. The students have a “Marisol” Facebook page, where others can make comments about stories in the headlines and social issues, and before each rehearsal, actors participate in a warm-up where they suggest a related topic to discuss.
“These are things the world needs to be awakened to,” Anderson said.
The production has also been an exciting challenge for the designers. Tim Dugan has designed a post-apocalyptic world, with the city in shambles, and Thomas John Bernard’s costume design features winged angels wearing black leather motorcycle jackets.
Student designers have also been crucial to creating the sets, which feature a number of set paintings. Anderson said she is particularly impressed with the work of students Thomas Schneider on lights and Eric Toussaint on sound. Nearly 40 students from across class years and majors have been involved in the production,
Peter Hadres of the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts has coached the vivid fight choreography in the play.
“It does have graphic scenes of violence,” Anderson noted, “but they are very necessary. Violence should never be decoration. Rivera (the playwright) said that violence should come into a scene only when words fail.”
The play has been used as a teaching tool in theater classes. Rivera’s thoughts on playwriting have been part of a playwriting class, and as dramaturges, students have explored both history and detail of the subjects in the play, as well as the playwright’s inspirations for writing it.
Anna Acuna plays Marisol. As a Latina woman who is a Roman Catholic, she could really identify with the character, Anderson said. For her the role has been an experience of self-discovery.
Others in the cast are Ryan Austin, Ellen Jones, Katie Matten, Kyle McCurdy and Jaide Whitman. Some play multiple roles as the characters Marisol encounters who change the course of events.
The play is not as bleak as it may sound. In addition to its apocalyptic message, it includes rich, dark comedy, as the angels try to gather people of the Earth to assume responsibility. Anderson says she hopes people will be inspired by it.
“Get those conversations going…This is truly reality. Wake up.”