Time can be a wild concept when you think about it too much. We know it exists, we progress through it every day. We’ve constructed all of these words to describe it: days, months, years. But how we actually experience time can vary from person to person and even from year to year. Four years when you’re in high school can feel like an eternity, and then years later you can look back and feel like it flew by. Even love, as shown by writer José Rivera in his play “Cloud Tectonics,” can warp our experience of time.
“Cloud Tectonics,” presented in Seattle by Sound Theatre Company and community-based theater organization Earthseed through Oct. 15, follows a night, or perhaps two years, in the lives of Celestina and Anibal inside Anibal’s apartment. During a rare downpour in Los Angeles, Anibal picks up a pregnant, hitchhiking Celestina and offers her a place to stay the night, with the promise of helping her on her journey to find the father of her unborn child. But Celestina is no ordinary hitchhiker. Wherever she goes, time seems to stop. Her parents thought she might be cursed. Her father told her she was born when he was 25, but as she points out to Anibal, she’s far too young to be a 54-year-old with a 79-year-old father whom she just found dead prior to recently running away from home. And her pregnancy? Well, she’s been pregnant for two years and counting.
The world Rivera and director Jéhan Òsanyìn build, through the use of magical realism that brings surrealistic elements into a world that could easily be called our own, toys with our connection to time. As soon as Celestina enters Anibal’s apartment, his watch stops and the electronic clock projected on the back wall blinks “12:00.” From there, “Cloud Tectonics” alternates between diving into how love can seem to stop time and the absolute horror and panic that can accompany the realization that time is all too quickly passing you by.
To emphasize the former point, Òsanyìn highlights key moments of physical intimacy in Celestina and Anibal’s love story. The air is tinged with the mystical as actors move almost in slow motion when Celestina (played here by Jay Woods) and Anibal (Myles Romo) first touch hands. And later, as Anibal rubs Celestina’s feet, lighting designer Adem Hayyu pulls focus to them, dimming the rest of the stage as if the world around them is falling away. Woods and Romo beautifully play these simple moments of connection as we watch Celestina and Anibal fall in love in real time.
That’s then contrasted with moments like Anibal starting to spiral when he realizes that he’s beginning to forget the events that brought the two of them together, events that supposedly couldn’t have happened more than a few hours earlier. Though that’s nothing compared to the pain experienced by Nelson, Anibal’s younger brother played by Jacob Alcazar. Alcazar shifts from humorous bravado trying to woo Celestina to betrayed anger after he leaves the apartment only to return minutes later with two years’ worth of letters returned to sender and countless missed phone calls. Over those few minutes of us watching Anibal and Celestina fall in love, the world continued to fly by outside of the apartment, leading to years that Anibal and Nelson will never get back
At its best, this play and these performances deftly explore these highs and lows. But then there are some almost inexplicable moments that left me scratching my head — moments that seem to disconnect from what Rivera had written. For instance, when Nelson first arrives at Anibal’s apartment, he brings with him some beer that Anibal proceeds to put into his refrigerator. Mere moments later, Nelson asks Anibal if he has any beer, which, of course he does; Nelson just gave him some. There’s a world where you can convince me that this was intentional, to highlight just how quickly people can forget things in the presence of the time-altering Celestina, along the same lines as Anibal’s earlier panicked moment. But unlike other moments of forgetting in the show that are acknowledged either through dialogue or action (like Anibal’s panic), there’s nothing to support a lapse from Nelson that happens faster than any other moment in the show. So even if intentional, it winds up feeling more indicative of the larger issue within this production.
Multiple instances like this are sprinkled throughout, where the connection to the text at hand seems to loosen. Rivera’s words are spectacular and vivid, like when Celestina is in pain and she describes it as feeling her baby tapping her spine with their fingers. But at times, this production seems to stumble over them, resulting in the actors losing the connection with each other that makes this love story and magical exploration shine.
I’m admittedly a sucker for shows that make me think, even if they aren’t perfect in their execution. Rivera’s play considers the limited supply resource that is time and asks us to contemplate just how much of our existence we tether to this concept. It gives us a story and then asks us to look inward and examine its application to our daily lives. And really, that’s what theater should do.