Hope Springs Eternal

José Rivera's Marisol asks profound questions, and the University Theater interprets it with grace and imagination

The University Theater at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville presents an ambitious and challenging production of José Rivera's Marisol. In his dreamlike story of a world on the brink, Rivera poses the question artists have been asking forever: If God is good, why is there evil in the world?

Marisol Perez (Natasha M. Baumgardner), a Puerto Rican office worker who lives in the perilous Bronx, is unaware of how often her guardian angel (Erica Christian Sutherlin) has protected her, until the Angel gives up, tired of struggling in a world gone mad. God, it seems, has turned senile, so the Angel joins her colleagues in a rebellion against the deity. The ensuing war makes the world even worse, with both God and the angels turning their backs on mankind, everyone out for themselves and no one safe from harm -- a world, in fact, a lot like our own. Marisol presents a fever-dream version of reality that exists, perhaps, just below the surface of the everyday, or perhaps it's all the main character's dream. Marisol's meaning is open to many interpretations; it's the kind of piece that sweeps the cobwebs from the stage and from our expectations of what theater can do. If it sometimes feels like a Twilight Zone episode, that's not surprising, given that Rivera also created the lighter but just as weird TV show Eerie, Indiana.

Playwright Rivera challenges not only audiences but actors and producers; because of his huge themes and mythic stories, the imagery in his scripts is sometimes difficult to stage. But director William Grivna succeeds at bringing the surreal world to life and in keeping an anxious, unsettled tone throughout, helped immensely by the wall-to-wall sound design by Nick Sears and Nathan Ruyle. Their haunting original music and effects serve as an excellent soundtrack to the proceedings. Sutherlin is a standout as the fierce but compassionate Angel; she has a great knack for Rivera's poetic language and moves with majesty and strength. Scott Miller brings intensity and commitment to Lenny, and Shane J. Signorino does a fine turn as the "Man with Scar Tissue" (that name should give you a sense of the play). Miller and Signorino understand the style of the piece and play it perfectly. Bringing nontraditional casting full circle, Grivna has cast non-Latina Baumgardner as Marisol, and it takes a while to accept this redheaded pixie as a Puerto Rican who has come up from the streets. At times, Baumgardner could have slowed down and made more of the language, but, for the most part, she makes a strong Alice-type guide through this apocalyptic Wonderland.

In any world, real or surreal, evil exists and the innocent die, and what can we do about it? The play ends with a message of one word -- "hope" -- and painfully bright lights aimed straight at the audience suggest that the answer is not in the angels but in ourselves.

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