One of the cool things about Teatro Bravo! is that you can't predict what kind of Latino theater they're going to give you. It might be a socially conscious tale of contemporary people, with echoes of older myths; it might be a biography of a public figure, bringing light to obscured corners. It might be a wild, hysterical, subversive comedy or a revived classic. Or it might be an artsy, dreamy, intriguing spectacle, like Lorca in a Green Dress.
This play, by Pulitzer winner Nilo Cruz, places the just-executed Federico García Lorca in a special kind of Purgatory just for the surrealism-friendly, where other lost souls must work as actors portraying aspects of his personality for 40 days -- a popular period of time in rituals of Roma people (Gypsies), whose culture was the focus of much of Lorca's artistic output. (That wasn't as hard to describe as I'd feared.)
Since Lorca was a playwright in life, and playing with reality through art often encompasses questions of existence, including the difference between life and death, there are multiple layers of mild but stimulating confusion here, along with the sort of reflexive musing that goes on in plays within plays and writing about writers. Most of the texture, though, is a skillful motif of repetition and variation, with recurring short scenes including the circumstances of Lorca's death (which remain unverified) and his favorite memory: a day at the beach with his close friend Salvador Dalí and Dalí's sister.
Raymond King Shurtz directs with a surprising and engaging physicality, bringing the cast far downstage in the Little Theatre's intimate space and stylizing the encounters just enough to remind us that these characters' relationships aren't the kind we have on this plane. The only way to play supernatural characters is as if they are real people, and the performers bring genuine heart to their No Exit-like predicament, alternating among frustration, compassion, and deserved pride in their "work."
Raquel García's costumes are lovely and evocative. (They also have that inherent Matrixy nature, and when the "actors" are "off duty," they strip off bits and pieces the way resting actors do.) Elizabeth Polen, whose character helps "guard" the Lorca Room, looks just like a muted Spanish Fascist version of one of these girl soldiers of Oz. Part of it is her feisty demeanor.
The green dress of the title is the frequent garb of Israel Jimenez, who wears it not as a female impersonator but as a version of Lorca who likes to wear a brilliant marabou-trimmed brocade gown with slicked-down hair and sparkly eyeshadow. Jimenez gives both levels of his character a confident seductiveness.
The whole cast is compelling and fun, including Lena Jácome's mute flamenco dancer and Thomas Johnson as a (man who plays a) youth in knickers. Fernando J. Tesón plays Lorca with Blood, the entity who's acknowledged to be the "real" Lorca -- although he's dead. Tesón has a heavy and complicated line load, but even on opening night he was the master of the goings-on, handling the wildest of symbolic poetry as assuredly as the more straightforward dialogue.
The set, designed by Shurtz, is a landscape of isolated details: a series of stained glass panels, a floating, lonely balustrade, and a huge bullring gate, all suspended above the stage and channeling beams of light from time to time. Battered green traveling trunks (Lorca really dug him some green) take the forms they need to -- sometimes as lofty towers of inexorable fate -- and contain what's needed at any given moment. Far upstage, beyond a platform that sometimes holds the dancer, a little painting of the gate rests curiously on the wall.
Lorca in a Green Dress' great success is that all these disparate elements don't feel disparate at all. They come together to have a deliberate effect (which may vary from one spectator to another) and also honor the brief life of a creative, troubled, and oppressed man, while working a spell of beauty and fascination.
Lorca in a Green Dress continues through Saturday, March 3, in the Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road. For tickets, $13.50 to $18.50, click here or call 602-254-2151.