Review of Cloud Tectonics at Yale Cabaret
One of the most appealing aspects of the Yale Cabaret is the fact that the students of the Yale School of Drama who stage theater there are doing so “on their own dime,” as it were. It’s not for courses or credit; it’s for their own engagement with drama. This means that sometimes students get to work “outside discipline,” trying out aspects of theatrics and tech that are not part of their studies at YSD, thus broadening their skills and finding new approaches. Perhaps even more significantly, the Cabaret offers students a chance to work on projects that otherwise they’d never get a chance to do while at Yale. And such is the case with José Rivera’s Cloud Tectonics.
There aren’t a lot of opportunities in American theater for Latino/a actors and directors to stage their visions of U.S. experience. However, José Rivera’s intensely lyrical Cloud Tectonics was staged at both La Jolla, in San Diego, and Playwrights Horizon, in NYC, and it became a favorite play for three actors currently at the School of Drama: Sebastian Arboleda, who directs the Cab show outside discipline, Bradley Tejeda, a third-year, and Barbaro Guzman, a first-year. Their proposal of the show was in association with the recently formed El Colectivo, YSD’s Latino/a affinity group. Which makes the show an excellent opportunity for the Cab to showcase a little-known play from an under-represented American minority.
But more than that, it’s an excellent opportunity to see Bradley Tejeda—whose debut at the Cab three years ago I remember vividly, and who added comic intensity to the Rep’s version of Arcadia, directed by James Bundy last year—play a part that could have been written for him. Tejeda brings understated charm, aware sensitivity, and a soulful thoughtfulness to the role of Anibal de la Luna, a young Latino transplanted from NYC to LA, who picks up Celistina del Sol (Stephanie Machado), a pregnant woman hitching in a hurricane. We might say that, as a result, his life is changed forever, except that “forever” assumes a given temporal frame that Rivera’s play doesn’t respect. Once Celistina arrives, the clocks in Anibal’s apartment stop and so does time—though not outside in the real world.
While it’s a fact that Rivera studied for a time with Gabriel García Márquez, the grand-master of magical realism in fiction, Rivera’s play is as much Twilight Zone story as magical realist drama—in which, typically, the facts of reality, such as temporal and spatial continuity and the distinctness of states of life and death, can be bent or ignored. In other words, it’s only as “occult” as you feel it needs to be. A pregnant woman hitchhiking in a storm, “rescued” by a well-meaning savior to whom she tells a story from her past that indicates either madness or something even spookier. Then there’s Nelson (Guzman), Anibal’s brother, an earnestly manly soldier who immediately falls in love with Anibal’s guest when he meets her. As a character, Nelson lets Rivera keep one foot of his play in the world of U.S. armed conflicts, where the call of duty is a constant, while the brothers’ interplay grounds us in a world we share with them.
As written, Celistina del Sol is mostly a walking archetype: not the femme fatale that would typically have two brothers coming to blows over who gets to bed her, but rather a vision of “the Madonna,” an image of suffering and fertile femininity that makes some men open their slobbering hearts. Fortunately, Rivera’s play, and Arboleda’s direction, keep the improbabilities, such as Nelson’s instant affection and Celistina’s belief that she’s been pregnant for two years, within the realm of a kind of poetic naturalism. And it’s as poetry that the play works best. For these are characters who are ultimately reacting to the way love feels, not the way the world works.
As Celistina, Stephanie Machado exudes a kind of knowing sorrow that imbues her erratic statements with believability. Whether or not her experiences make sense to others, Celistina does not aim to deceive, and that may be the aspect that the two men find so haunting. She’s strange, but she means what she says. But there’s also a threat of hysteria under the surface that Machado is able to deliver without making us feel this hapless woman is bonkers.
Key to it all is Tejeda’s Anibal, who deliberates over his own emotions, his brother’s emotions, his guest’s situation with a gravitas that takes its time, and, in a conclusion that is in some ways surprising, in some ways inevitable, he plays an aged Anibal as someone still distantly related to the man he was. It’s a bravura performance.
Another key element is the lyricism of Spanish. Early on, Celistina, before Nelson’s appearance, directs a long speech in Spanish at Anibal who doesn’t understand. Most of the audience won’t either, but Machado’s delivery is so beguiling it seems impossible that Anibal’s heart wouldn’t be stolen away. As it turns out—when we hear the speech again with simultaneous translation—what she says delivers a kind of logic of existential love that gets at the heart of the play and redounds well on a Valentine’s Day weekend. And, along those lines, credit as well the dance sequence and co-choreographers, Nicole Gardner and Jonathan Higginbotham, both outside discipline and the former from outside YSD.
With its very realistic set design by Izmir Ickbal and very realistic special effects of lighting and sound to make a raging L.A. storm feel real on a frigid New Haven night, Cloud Tectonics keeps its feet on the ground while exploring the heavenly provocations del Sol y de la Luna.
By José Rivera
Directed by Sebastian Arboleda
Co-Choreographers: Nicole Gardner, Jonathan Higginbotham; Co-Dramaturgs: Maria Inês Marques, Nahuel Telleria; Scenic Designer: Izmir Ickbal; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Technical Director: Matt Davis; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke; Producer: Rachel Shuey
Cast: Barbaro Guzman, Stephanie Machado, Bradley James Tejeda