nytheatre.com review by Brad Lee Thomason
August 21, 2011
In a touching tribute to her mother, Dulce Maria Solis offers us the painful but eventually triumphant story of Chela, which despite quite a hilarious beginning becomes a story that can be difficult to watch. The gifted Solis plays multiple characters throughout and is impressive as all of them; though I especially found her portrayal of a child early in the piece to be utterly charming. The laughs come often at the start, but eventually give way to a gut-wrenching and heroic tale of extreme degradation and domestic abuse.
The full title of this show is Chela: Her Third Husband, Her First Orgasm, which leads one to believe it just might be a comedy, and for the first half-hour there’s nothing to suggest that presumption is incorrect. However, the play takes a very dark turn when Solis moves from her Mexican home to Oklahoma City with the intention of creating a better life. Instead, she marries an abusive ogre named Finito who literally enslaves her; keeping her trapped in the home and savagely beating and raping her.
Interwoven into the drama are disturbing audio-visual presentations that depict the abuse; the videos are extremely effective and riveting though of such a brutal nature that it’s hard not to avert your eyes. The anger towards Finito that they drum up and the sadness I felt for Chela’s daily horror is a testament to how powerful they are and how real they seem. The only thing I can compare this level of abuse to are stories of young women who are abducted from their homeland and forced into prostitution. This is not exactly what happens to Chela, but the agony she experiences doesn’t seem that far off.
Despite the atrocities Solis is relating, she still manages to find places for humor. Her characterizations of a less than helpful Oklahoma psychiatrist (she took some Spanish in high school so clearly she’s qualified to communicate with a Mexican native) and later as an Indian doctor are exaggerated and jocular, and one place where she recreates a sex scene using a male puppet is downright hilarious.
In the end, Chela is a story about deliverance; and Solis has a play on her hands that is empowering to any woman who has had to break the cycle of physical and emotional abuse. Eventually she does have that first orgasm, but the description of it is more innocent and endearing than anything else, and after so many experiences that shows men should be only be feared I for one think this last tender moment is very richly deserved.