The Orinoco River, at 1330 miles, is one of the longest rivers in South America. Its drainage basin covers 340,000 square miles, three quarters in Venezuela, the rest in Columbia . The Orinoco and its tributaries form the major transportation system for eastern and interior Venezuela and the llanos of Columbia. It offers very rough going with many obstacles and life-threatening hardships, both in the water and out. When nationally celebrated Mexican playwright and distinguished literature professor Emilio Carballido chose the Orinoco as the setting for his late 1970’s play of the same name, he must have been thinking of the lawlessness and exotic remoteness such a setting would present.
In Orinoco!, Carballido’s vividly detailed monologues, describing the reality of the river or an actor’s state of mind, infuse the play with a strangely feral beauty. His lyrical dialogue foreshadows knife-edged potential for death and destruction. Every spoken or sung metaphor, every action of its characters (two down and out burlesque dancers who find themselves abandoned and adrift on a blood-spattered boat floating down the river towards a grim future) portend of violence and savagery. All may not be as it seems, may be worse. Contrast may indicate deceptive surprises. Who is the never seen silent man lying injured in the drifting boat’s stateroom; does he truly exist? Or is he a fabricated “cover” for bizarre mass murder?
Teatro Dallas presents a tentative, safe production of this intriguing, nuanced play. At the play’s opening, we learn that during the night prior, the boat’s entire crew engaged in a drunken, vicious brawl, which escalated into an attempt to break into the showgirls’ room to gang rape them, and ended with all but one crew member savagely murdered and tossed overboard. The set – the ship’s deck – the scene of the brawl, should reflect the bloody, grisly mayhem that took place the night before. Instead, a scant smattering of cautious red paint splatters dot here and there with a few unbroken beer bottles placed unobtrusively at the edges of the playing space. The deck should be littered with a jumble of debris—torn clothing, discarded shoes, shards of bottles, hats, weapons, lots of blood…all of which would offer the two capable actors fertile ground to develop character through and lead the audience into the boat’s dark mysteries. The rest of the production continues on that safe path, taking few risks, pushing no boundaries, hinting at few hidden agendas, creating little conflict and tension. It’s a workmanlike but non- adventuresome realization of Carballido’s evocative work.
Phyllis Cicero and Marbella Barreto as dancers Mina and Fifi are well cast and play believably together. There are moments where each verges on transcending the staidness of the production; the scene passes, and the deeper range of artistic possibility fades away. The only time the sordid un-reality of their situation and lives comes across clearly is when they rehearse a bit of song and dance routine. They aren’t awful; they’re just grimly amateurish. Choreographer Mark-Brian Sonna (www.mbsproductions.net) directs the women to communicate an air of desperation and bone-tiredness, as they laugh and clown and gyrate together in a threadbare routine of unbalanced enticement, almost a squalid dance of death. Too bad it’s a short scene.
Caraballido’s play Orinoco! merits performance. Even with Teatro Dallas’ production’s shortcomings, it provides thought-provoking, spine-chilling theater. For more Dallas stage reviews, go to http://sjamaaka.wordpress.com or http://www.examiner.com.