nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
July 17, 2006
A dreamlike atmosphere permeates everything in Jose Rivera's Cloud Tectonics. Clocks stop. Time passes at different speeds for different characters. Pregnancies last longer than nine months. Normal everyday existence, as we know it, is turned on its head in this fanciful tale of a female hitchhiker and the intoxicating spell she casts on the man who picks her up one dark-and-stormy night. Director James Phillip Gates tunes right into Rivera's wavelength, creating a world where time does indeed feel like it's standing still. If an entire production could be said to figuratively float by, it would be this one. While that occasionally results in a dead spot or two, the overall effect is hypnotic.
The hitchhiker in question is Celestina, a pregnant Latina woman trying to get out of a torrential Los Angeles downpour. Anibal, a lonely LAX baggage handler, picks her up and brings her home for the night. He doesn't have any ulterior motives, he's just trying to be a Good Samaritan ("...if you promise me you're not an axe-murderer...I promise you I'm not an axe-murderer too, okay?" he assures her). Nonetheless, once they reach his house, strange things start happening. Anibal's watch stops. Then, his younger brother, Nelson (whom he hasn't seen in six years), unexpectedly drops in for a visit in the middle of what's being called "the storm of the century." And Celestina talks about sex. A lot. She has coitus on the brain. But, she doesn't know when her unborn baby is due. When pressed for background information, she finally admits that, despite looking like she's in her mid-twenties, she's 54 years old and has been pregnant for two years.
What's going on here? That's the mystery that lurks at the heart of Cloud Tectonics, a love story disguised as a Twilight Zone episode that feels like it could've been written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. With an antecedent that's steeped so far in magical realism, it's no surprise that Rivera is more interested in ambiance than conflict. This choice limits both Celestina's and Anibal's individual journeys, and weighs Cloud Tectonics down with a couple of dull stretches. But, as reserved as the action may sometimes be, Rivera's facility for invoking an illusory atmosphere carries the play. The imagery of his language is especially rich. When Nelson puts his ear to Celestina's belly, he says he can hear the sound of the ocean. Anibal, meanwhile, has some of the play's most evocative passages. At one point he describes his efforts to comprehend Celestina's existence as "trying to understand the anatomy of the wind or the architecture of silence or cloud tectonics." When he wonders, at another point, if love "alters the physics around you in some way: changing the speed of light and the shape of space and how you experience time," Anibal sums up Cloud Tectonics perfectly.
The characters are brought to life vividly by the production's talented three-person cast. Julio Rivera is convincing as Nelson, a likable, macho jarhead. His frat boy-ish affability is endearing (and moving later on, when he makes a surprise return appearance). Frederique Nahmani is alluringly mysterious as the nymph-ish Celestina, giving her role a sexy and appropriate (and slightly dangerous) dose of libido. Luis Vega gives a terrific performance as Anibal, capturing his lonely, vulnerable eagerness very well. Vega is right on target in Anibal's early scenes with Celestina, as he makes non-stop small talk that betrays his nervousness. Later, when he fears that he may have brought a total head case home with him, his surreptitious stowing of a full knife block behind the TV is pricelessly funny. Throughout, Vega lets Anibal's romantic longing subtly come through in small doses, building as the play moves along. His scenes with Nahmani (which make up most of Cloud Tectonics) sizzle with complexity and possibility.
Special mention should be given to the design team. Casey Smith's set, which depicts the living room and kitchen of Anibal's Craftsman-style house, is superb (for once here's a set that is not only detailed, but actually feels lived in). Paul Hackenmueller's lights enhance the play's nebulous mood, and Heather Klar does a nice job with the costumes: I totally believed those were the clothes these characters would wear.
Theatergoers with a taste for the abstract and poetic will find much to like in Cloud Tectonics, as will anyone who likes discovering new talent. Vega, Nahmani, and Rivera are three actors to keep an eye out for in the future.