Sus Manos (Her Hands)
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
February 25, 2005
I always find it interesting when a playwright seizes a classic play and creates a parallel to its themes in a contemporary setting. In her compelling new show Sus Manos, Lauren Gunderson takes Shakespeare’s Othello and not only crafts some fine parallels to its themes but also weaves in some of its events and even includes it as a silent film within her play.
Gunderson takes us back to the year 1910 at the eve of the Mexican Revolution and sets the action in a hacienda just outside the southern city of Oaxaca. Christian, an American filmmaker, has come to Mexico to film a Mexican-style silent movie version of Othello, with himself (a white man) cast as the lead and otherwise an all-Mexican cast. Marco, the head of the household and successful Chicha (a corn beer) brewer and plantation owner, has allowed Christian to use his hacienda as the backdrop for his film. Marco has also provided Christian with a Desdemona named Lolita who happens to be his favorite prostitute from the local brothel. Marco’s indomitable wife, Julia, is infuriated by Lolita’s presence in her house and bares her claws in the timid Lolita’s face. Eventually Julia makes a pact with Lolita to pretend to be friends so Julia can get the better of her husband.
Gunderson gives us some really fantastically nuanced characters in this play. All of them go through some sort of transformation. I don’t wish to give away too much of Gunderson’s intricate plot here, but I’d like to give a couple of examples of the playwright’s craftiness. As soon as Julia makes the pact with Lolita to pretend to be friends, I saw this as a tool to give these two women from completely different backgrounds the opportunity to learn from each other and possibly even become friends. The two of them are in search of themselves and the meaning of love and they find both in each other. Gunderson makes a great comparison between their sexual/personal revolution and the revolution that is brewing all around them. Also, Lolita has a beautiful singing voice but the film she is starring in is a silent film—which is an excellent bit of irony that exposes how marginalized or voiceless she has been her entire life.
Othello, like many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, has themes of love, betrayal and revenge. Gunderson takes these themes and superimposes them onto the inevitable events at this hacienda. Marco thinks he’s on top of the world but he has no idea who’s on his side and who will betray him. This compares very well to Othello who is at the top of his game when he falls. Sus Manos is at its heart an unlikely love story. It’s a story about passions—political passions and as well as passionate love. Gunderson is a gifted literary seamstress, weaving parts of Othello into her story. Sus Manos has all the elements of a great Shakespearean drama except for one: dead bodies. I expected at least one dead body but, alas, there were none. It makes for an ending that is unfulfilling.
Throughout the two-hour program we are shown clips from the silent film that is being made. I was able to draw direct comparisons to some of the action in the play with the sections of Othello we were being shown, but not to all of them. At times the actors were obstructing the screen and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be watching the film clip or not. There was something about the film clips that didn’t quite work for me. They don’t add to the plot or the richness of Gunderson’s characters and I think the play would do better without them.
Another element of the show that is less than satisfying is director Heather Ondersma’s underutilization of the wonderful pianist, Racquel Borromeo. There are several scene changes in this show but Ondersma only taps Borromeo’s talent to play some classic silent film piano riffs during the film segments. Otherwise, Ondersma’s direction is quite brilliant. She certainly manages to draw out the love and tenderness alongside the arrogance and wickedness from her actors. She also sets up a few scenes in tiny pockets of the stage in order to avoid additional scene changes.
I have to admit that I expected more Spanish to be spoken in this show. There are a few words thrown in here and there, but for the most part there is not a significant amount of Spanish spoken until the very end, in the form of direct audience address.
On the technical side, the show puts on an attractive face. Alisha Engle’s early 20th century costumes are beautiful and they help take us back into the period. Scott Boyd’s set is a perfect rendition of the yellowish stucco walls one might come across in Mexico. There is also some decent fight choreography provided by Judi Lewis Ockler.
The show boasts a powerful ensemble. Arlene Chico-Lugo slowly boils over with desire for liberation as the shy prostitute Lolita. Natasha Yannacaeedo delivers a stunning performance as the strong willed yet vulnerable Julia. Christopher T. VanDijk is great as the suave and slimy misogynist Marco. Joe Fellman gives an excellent performance as a man out of his element as the filmmaker Christian. Kevin Lyons and Sylvia Rolden Dohi round out the ensemble with two strong performances.