A man and a woman jolt awake at a dingy kitchen table.
Eyes fluttering open, hearts pounding, they realize they have no idea where they are or even who they are. With that, the couple plunges deep into a labyrinth of myth and memory in "Se Llama Cristina," a new work from San Francisco playwright Octavio Solis.
The dark side of identity has long played a key role in the drama of Solis, who has made a name as a bard of the border with works such as "Santos and Santos," "El Paso Blue" and "The Ghosts of the River." He has a gift for creating lost souls searching for grace in a godforsaken world streaked with magical realism. Now Solis tries his hand rattling the bones of Sam Shepard's Southwestern wasteland as well.
In this mysterious, 90-minute fever dream, in its world premiere at San Francisco's Magic Theatre, two people must confront the grim forces of fate and the ghosts of the past. Passionately directed by Loretta Greco, "Cristina" emerges as one of Solis' most spare and most intimate works, a highly theatrical mixture of Spanish and English. While the densely plotted play sometimes loses its way in the maze of its own enigmas, "Cristina" leaves a stain on the mind's eye.
The echoes of Shepard ring out. These two are fools for love. They have lost a child under suspicious circumstances. They seem doomed to pay the sins of their mothers and fathers. They are drug-addled drifters who eke out lives of desperation and poverty, but their suffering is epic. This downtrodden man and woman, whose names shift as the action barrels forward, are as cursed as the house of Atreus.
Played with depth and ferocity by Sean San José and Sarah Nina Hayon, these two must solve the riddle of themselves by mining the rubble at their feet. A junkie's needle, a bottle of hooch and scraps of paper are the clues to the puzzle of why they are hunched over that table, shooting poison into their veins. There is also a baby's crib with no infant inside, just a greasy piece of fried chicken.
The always incendiary San José, best known for his work with the Campo Santo troupe ("Santos and Santos"), etches the man with great sensitivity. He's a poet whose beautiful turns of phrase belie the ugliness in his heart. A harrowing childhood has scarred his soul, but when he meets the woman, he thinks he has found a sliver of hope. They drink Dewar's, share their favorite Spanish curse words and fall for each other in a trippy, whiskey-soaked encounter.
Only as they learn each other's secrets does the man realize that her brush with evil has been as destructive as his own. Hayon has the tricky task of navigating the path from victim to warrior over and over. The actress charts the woman's frailties and her moments of strength with unerring skill.
Solis sucks us into a vortex of yearning and despair as the play weaves back and forth in time.
The characters cope with the specters of molestation, drugs, rage and violence as they cling to each other amid a hostile world. Reality intrudes into their grim reverie in the form of two characters: a wife-beating cowboy (a chilling turn by Rod Gnapp) and a coltish teenage girl (Karina Gutierrez).
The playwright gives the main characters an aching sense of specificity. The woman "has a smudge of woe in her eyes." The man wears "a lonesome suit of clothes." The ultrasound picture looks like "life and skeleton all mixed up in one image. Vida y muerte." Solis' ear for details, for the small things that make one broken romance unlike another, make the dialogue pop.
That's why it's disappointing that the secondary characters here feel so schematic. They function more like props than people, serving a purpose in the plot but never really breathing on their own.
There are also times when the play's meticulously crafted structure feels a little too studied for a breakneck tale of blood and lust. Once the cycle of suffering becomes clear, there's little suspense to this dance macabre. Solis has yet to find the middle of the play. The man's connection to his mother, for instance, needs more nuance. The drug trip metaphor also runs out of punch.
"Cristina" is at its most devastating when Solis explores how people can get so lost in a relationship that they can't imagine life without the other person. That hunger can cut so deep that there's nothing left but scar tissue.
He also evokes how the arrival of a baby can transform a person, revealing the best and worst in someone's spirit. The incandescence of new life collides with the fear of the unknown, sometimes with explosive results. Once again, Solis captures the shifting quicksand of human experience with wit and lyricism.
Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772.
'Se Llama cristina'
By Octavio Solis
Through: Feb. 17
Where: Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, San Francisco
Running time: 1 hour,
30 minutes (no intermission)