Review: ‘Don Cristóbal’ at Pointless Theatre

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Co-directors Rachel Menyuk and Eric Swartz have brought to the DC stage a truly original work with Don Cristóbal, Pointless Theatre’s last show of the 2017-2018 season. At first an obscene and outrageous puppet show (yes, adult-only content), this production unexpectedly metamorphosizes into something much more, as we drop into the fevered unconscious of a Cuban-American theater director (a radiant Thais Menendez) and her reckoning with her artistic and collaborative failures.

Paz Lopez (The Poet/Lorca) and Thais Menendez (The Director) in Don Cristobal, now playing at Pointless Theatre. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher Photography.
Paz Lopez (The Poet/Lorca) and Thais Menendez (The Director) in Don Cristóbal, now playing at Pointless Theatre. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher Photography.

Don Cristóbal begins with a feud between the iron-fisted Director and the romantic Poet (Paz Lopez) as to the meaning and direction of their puppet show-within-a-show, “Don Cristóbal.” In an initially confusing, but ultimately very effective pre-performance setup, the cast members can be seen scrambling all over the stage, visibly irritable and arguing amongst themselves as they dip in and out of the puppet theater. This unsuspecting critic was compelled to think something had gone wrong, though clearly I was unprepared for the shattered fourth walls and the self-referential structure of this delightfully weird spin on Federico García Lorca’s only play for the puppet theater.

Voiced and puppeteered by Matthew Sparacino, the puppet Don Cristóbal is a shady doctor in search of a wife to tend to his “needs.” When “La Madre” (Adrianne Knapp) offers up her busty daughter, Rosita (Vanessa Chapoy), for a price, Cristóbal pulls out his trusty red club to make quick money from an ailing patient, “El Enfermo” (Scott Whalen). Little does he know, his new wife is randier than most and has four (soon five) children under her belt. Cristóbal doesn’t like the sound of that, so when La Madre insists he’s the father, Cristóbal makes short work of her with a few whacks of his club. All the beating and dying and lewd puppet intercourse is standard for this traditional Punch and Judy style puppet show (in short, one puppet encounters another puppet who falls victim to his club). Pointless company members, Whalen and Sparacino, are terrific in their puppet mediums, with voices that seem to come out from some different dimension to animate their wooden counterparts.

In its compelling, dystopian second act, Don Cristóbal delves deeper into the psyche of the Director, and the ramifications of a self-centered creative process. After a domino-effect showdown between the Poet and the Director that causes the entire cast to storm off stage, the Director is abandoned mid-show. Defeated, a veiled puppet with a red stick rises from behind the puppet box and knocks the Director unconscious. When she awakens, she’s seated in the center of a “Guernica”-looking set piece over which a giant, crypto-fascist-looking eye hovers. Two guards explain in English (Knapp) and in Spanish (Adrian Iglesias) that she’s being tried for the crimes of Don Cristóbal.

Down this nightmare-world rabbit hole akin to Alice in Wonderland, the Director must suffer the consequence of her punitive demands for more shock, sex, and violence in the puppet show of the first act, by unwillingly assuming the identity of the titular Don Cristóbal, whose outright nastiness is indebted to her direction. With the help of a glammed-up alternate-universe Poet (Lopez channels a sultry Latinx version of the Mad Hatter), the Director escapes confinement and must seek out witnesses that can attest to the fact that she is in fact, not Don Cristóbal. Unfortunately, her witnesses are incarnates of the very puppets abused in the first act. Not to mention the Director simply looks, sounds, and acts too much like Cristóbal to change anyone’s mind. . .

Adrianne Knapp (The Madre/Guardia) and Adrian Jesus Iglesias (Puppeteer/Guardia) in Don Cristobal, now playing at Pointless Theatre. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher Photography.
Adrianne Knapp (La Madre/Guardia) and Adrian Jesus Iglesias (Puppeteer/Guardia) in Don Cristóbal, now playing at Pointless Theatre. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher Photography.

Once again, Pointless Theatre delivers an innovative take on an outrageous classic work rarely staged. With a skillful (if raucous) show of puppetry front and center in the first act, Don Cristóbal’s second act opens up into a multi-setting journey with some truly inventive stage direction (specifically, the escape from prison when the multi-purpose set piece is moved and tilted around the stage to convey a progressive sense of running and hiding). Add to this the inclusion of an almost 50/50 Spanish (which Lopez and Iglesias speak almost exclusively) and English language script, and an element of dance (in a truly remarkable scene with the corporeal version of El Enfermo Whalen and his garden of plants), and you get an evocative production, born of the lyrical energy of Lorca but then expanded to convey a much more personal exploration of the plight of the artist. Fans of the work of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) will delight in this show.

Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission.

Pointless Theatre’s Don Cristóbal plays through September 8, 2018, at the Dance Loft on 14th, 4618 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20011. Purchase tickets online.