The setup: In her diverse 30+-year career, writer-comedian-educator-activist Monica Palacios, a.k.a. the Surfer Chola, has not written a whole lot of plays (though she's helped others make hundreds of theater pieces) -- she's more of a lecturer, standup/solo performance artist, blogger, essayist, and magazine-style journalista making queer Latinahood something that's about including each community in the other. Complexity, fluidity, fun, humor, visibility, respect, all that.
But between 1998 and 2005, after being awarded a fellowship in playwriting from L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, she developed Clock, a play about a lesbian Latina couple contemplating parenthood via alternative insemination. Phoenix's Teatro Bravo! has wanted to produce the show for some time, it's finally happening this season in a world première mounting, and four performances remain.
The execution: The play's directed by Marivel T. Danielson, a Transborder Studies associate professor at ASU who was hand-picked by Palacios. Her passion for the material is evident in the ensemble's performances, but it would have been a good thing for this play if either the author or the director were an actual more-experienced-in-mainstream-theater person.
Short yet talky scenes that don't have endings, excruciating and unnecessary set-piece changes, and structure and focus problems contribute to an overall lack of coherence in a script that tries to have a plot and relationships among seven characters for two hours. Although Clock fails at those basic conventions, it does offer emotional engagement and some strong, effective moments.
The actresses are not only charming and energetic, they work hard at defining their characters and definitely grow on you as the minimal action unfolds. Sandy Leon (Head: The Musical and some of my favorite The [sic] Sense sketches) and Diana Z. Jordan, in the roles of Angel and Maribel, are a sweet yet three-dimensional couple. Leon is forced to have repeated anxiety attacks that feature hallucinations of what turns out to be Aztec fertility goddess Leti (cute-as-a-button Victoria Servin). These are awkward and repetitive.
Watching this show drives home what can be exhausting about community theater: You get really interested or captivated or amused for a minute or two, and then something weird happens and your brain, heart, and soul are dropped like a slippery shampoo bottle right onto your big toe. Ow.
Then you come back and start to fall in love with something else, like Palacios' spot-on depiction of three adult sisters: the eldest, Dolores (Michelle Y. Allen, subtly bossy), who's kind of conservative and stubborn; the roll-with-the-punches, confident middle child (Amy Arcega, who is too young for her part but so sassy she makes you forget that); and Angel, the spoiled, insecure, and also stubborn change-of-life youngest daughter. And the cultural resonance of the play is sensitively written and holds up well -- there are still family members who don't see why a gay couple would want children and aren't sure it's a good idea and sometimes even oppose it out of a sense of loving protectiveness. But it's odd, watching them on stage, to see loved ones who've come around to be supportive yet apparently did all of that processing and accepting in scenes we didn't get to see.
And Palacios is very funny, so there are jokes, but they feel kind of glued on rather than organic parts of the dialogue. Not that the dialogue builds in a satisfying fashion anyway; multi-person scenes are more difficult than monologues, and any time the headcount onstage exceeds two in Clock, the connections start to flicker.
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And, as someone who's pickier about scripts than I am has pointed out, the play is about two or three things and doesn't use them to reinforce each other as one might expect or desire. Ow -- now the conditioner's fallen on your bunion.
The verdict: It isn't that Palacios and Danielson aren't skilled professionals in the discipline of live performance; it's just that A Play is a specific kind of animal they haven't captured here. There's a delicate balance between supporting something that's not perfect because it's extremely worthwhile and supporting something that's really not good enough merely because it's relevant and socially conscious and speaks to and about underserved communities for which you feel affinity. You'll have to decide where your taste and free time lead you with respect to this one.
Clock continues through Sunday, March 16, at Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street. Admission to Thursday, March 13's 7 p.m. performance is pay-what-you-can, with a minimum $10 donation suggested. Prices for the rest of the shows range from $10 to $20. Call 602-402-9954 or order tickets here.