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El Paraiso

Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., May 17, 2002

El Paraiso: X Marks the Spot

The Off Center,

through May 25

Running Time: 1 hr, 30 min

Deep in the heart of Texas is an 'X' -- it's right there between the 'E' and the 'A' -- and it marks the spot where two highways intersect. It's the crossroads of intellect and desire, where what you think and what you want finally meet. Now, at that spot the two may face each other down like gunslingers at high noon or come together like the schoolmarm and the sheriff, but whichever it is you can be sure there will be sparks -- sudden flashes of light against a vast, dark landscape.

Leastways, that's how it is in the cosmos of the Rude Mechs. This well-traveled, restlessly inventive company took a road trip across the Lone Star State to see the Marfa lights and along the way discovered something of what it means to be, as the program notes, "a thinking wanting Texan." Playwright Kirk Lynn and director Shawn Sides have translated their journey into a raucous, sweet, funny, fanciful meditation on heaven, as embodied in this mysterious stretch of land between the Big Bend and Big Thicket, the rios Grande and Rojo, and the people and legends living within its borders.

El Paraiso begins as a road trip, but in this case it's a passage to the Other Side. With video monitors running images from a nighttime drive down a long straight highway, composer-performers Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski transport us through a graveyard of lost sounds: sweeping themes from imaginary Westerns, the violent percussion of battles, lonesome dance-hall melodies. When we reach our destination, it's a vision of heaven as only a Texan could conceive it: sand covering every inch of the Off Center floor, side-by-side sets of swinging saloon doors, human-sized derricks. Scenic designer Leilah Stewart completes the setting with the corpses of beer bottles -- dozens of 'em -- strung up on ropes like victims of Roy Bean's rough justice.

It's here that we find James Dean, looking like Jett Rink slouching across West Texas in Giant, quite literally a stranger in paradise. Like some B-movie outlaw, he has a man on his trail -- only instead of a sheriff, his relentless pursuer is philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, seeking him to pose the question, "Who decides what we want?" The pair introduce the show's central tension between head and heart, but the other characters follow suit, with rambunctious cowpoke Casey, conflicted bartender Mercedes, strong, silent wrangler Marfa, and sensual saloon singer Lily Langtry all facing down their desires and the ideas they have about them. They slam back whiskies together, they slug it out with each other; they draw their guns, they kiss. They even take up microphones and wail country songs.

You see, El Paraiso is also a crossroads of Western myth and mirth. The familiar types and devices of frontier fiction are all here, but playfully subverted, as with the showdown between movie star and philosopher or the saloon brawl where the two rowdies duking it out are a man and a woman, and the gal -- Lana Lesley's tight-lipped, buckskin-clad Marfa, giving a tip o' the Stetson to Gary Cooper -- lands the final punch. On the flipside, some of the play's most obvious humorous elements, like the songs performed as karaoke, contain some of its most heartfelt sentiments.

It's a keen collision, this mockery and meaning, that cleverly teases our cherished notions about this land and heroism and independence while preserving a sense of the romance and imagination and mystique that Texas inspires. It seems to have inspired some of Lynn's sharpest and wisest writing, as well as a host of rich performances and memorable bits: René Alvarado's whooping 'n' hollering Casey, all unrestrained passion, Billy the Id; Alvarado and Lesley tusseling through the sand and into a full trough; Sarah Richardson's Lily matter-of-factly analyzing men while seductively shaving her legs; Lesley singing about driving and forgetting; a cleansing gullywasher of a storm conjured by Jeremy Lee's sound; Carra Martinez's Mercedes and Harvey Guion's Wittgenstein shiftily eyeing each other over shot glasses of whisky; Guion wistfully explaining differences in perception and how it affects the way we seek to live; and Jason Liebrecht's James Dean, soft-spoken and solitary, the pale rider of this Western, ghostly even in the flesh.

Early on, in near-darkness, Dean strikes a match to light a cigarette, but it goes out before he can. The match drops to the ground and ever so briefly, we can see a tiny orb of fiery orange against the dark sand. It's a bit of unexpected beauty and mystery, a Marfa light, that we desire to see again and to ponder. Just like Texas. Just like El Paraiso.

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