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The faint scent of distant wildfires and a low, hazy sky functioned as the backdrop to the opening of José Rivera’s “Marisol,” from The Williams Project, last Friday, Aug. 13. Performed outdoors, through Aug. 29, it’s one of Seattle’s first full-scale theater productions since the pandemic began. But before the show, director Ryan Guzzo Purcell’s safety preamble had nothing to do with COVID-19. Instead, he warned the performance might need to be paused or halted if the air quality got too bad. Welcome back, theater.
Though it premiered in the early ’90s, Rivera’s play about a post-apocalyptic apocalypse can feel a little too relevant to our current slate of crises, as its characters repeatedly discover there isn’t safety to be found indoors or outdoors.
In this vision of a pre-millennium New York, the government is rounding up and torturing those with overdue credit-card bills. Nazis are burning people to death in the parks. Coffee has gone extinct. Early on, Marisol (Yadira Duarte) gets distracted from wondering where the moon disappeared to by an odor in the air: “Do you smell smoke?”
The culprit? A million trees burning in Ohio, and in these cataclysmic times, merely a throwaway gag before things turn really dark. “You can smell the polyester, the burnt malls … the flat vowels,” Marisol’s co-worker June (Alyssa Franks) sneers.
Marisol, played by Duarte with a raw-nerve energy that keeps finding new ways to fray, is greeted one night by her guardian angel (Porscha Shaw) in her Bronx apartment. It’s a thrilling, disorienting moment, but the angel has some bad news: She’s about to be too preoccupied to do any more guarding. A cadre of angels is planning a revolt against God, who they claim has gone senile and is letting the world crumble under his watch.
Shaw’s angel, serene but weary, channels “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle: “I swear, best thing that could happen to this city is immediate evacuation followed by fire on a massive scale. Melt it all down. Consume the ruins.” Later, one in a series of deranged men played by Miguel Castellano will claim he’s owed payment from appearing in “Taxi Driver” before attacking Marisol with an ice cream sandwich.
Rivera’s florid but blunt language signposts a play that plunges from heightened urban satire into surreal nightmare, accompanied suitably by the transition from dusk to dark in The Williams Project’s production. It’s no surprise from a company named after Tennessee Williams, but the troupe’s attraction to ornately written, dramatically untidy work continues here. Purcell’s stripped-down staging rarely visualizes Rivera’s depiction of a disintegrating city, redirecting focus to the dialogue’s poetic carnality, with everyone constantly worrying whether they’ll eat or be eaten.
Unprotected, Marisol gets a bad omen immediately. A woman with her exact name has been murdered on the street where she lives. Hoping to find safety in numbers among a populace on the edge, Marisol turns to June, who seems trustworthy enough. Though there is her roommate brother (Peter Sakowicz, sufficiently off-putting), who’s been harboring an obsession with Marisol for years. Like most interactions in “Marisol,” this one starts weird and gets worse. There’s an invisible supernatural war playing out in the background, but the destruction and despair that occurs mostly originates from all-too-human shortcomings.
The Williams Project’s production wobbles a bit trying to stick the landing on Rivera’s thundering crescendo of a conclusion. Here, it’s more flickering candle than cleansing fire. Still, this “Marisol” feels suited for the moment, set in a universe where rebirth is possible despite overwhelming calamity. Back in this universe, as the play ended and the audience dispersed, a wedge of blood red moon was rising in the sky.