Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2005

The first word that came to my mind to describe Cusi Cram’s Fuente receiving its world premiere at Barrington Stage’s Stage II, was “Fantastic”. In these language-lazy times we too often accept that word as merely a synonym for “good”. I could just see myself with a one-word quotation on some poster or brochure: “Fantastic” –

But that is not at all what I mean. I mean what the dictionary says that I mean. I mean:
1 a : based on fantasy : not real b : conceived or seemingly conceived by unrestrained fancy c : so extreme as to challenge belief : broadly : exceedingly large or great 2 : marked by extravagant fantasy or extreme individuality : ECCENTRIC

Cram’s fantasy is indeed marked by extreme individuality, which is what Barrington Stage means when it calls Cram a “powerful original voice” in the theatre. Fuente is completely original. It won the Herrick Theatre Foundation Prize for New Play in 2004 from over one thousand submitted scripts and was featured at the O’Neill Playwright’s Conference in 2003 and was workshopped by Barrington Stage at the Studio Space in Sheffield last fall.

Cram is an accomplished writer and “Fuente” is not her first play. In her program notes she states: “Fuente was written three years ago when I was a playwriting student at Juilliard. It was inspired by a bout of insomnia – I couldn’t sleep, so I wrote and someone named Chapparo began telling me about a town – a very strange town. I listened because all my tossing and turning was keeping my husband up. I listened because I had no choice.”

Chapparo’s voice remains a very strong one in this iteration of Fuente. It is he who opens the play with a monologue about the town of Fuente, located in the American southwest “not as far south as you can go, but south nonetheless.” One of its residents refers to it as a town famous only for dust, although its name means “fountain” in Spanish. Of the five Fuente residents we initially meet, three of them are Chicano. Chapparro (Michael Ray Escamilla) loves Soledad (Lucia Brawley). Esteban (Paolo Andino) loves her too, but he is married to Adela (Zabryna Guevara) with two small sons and a third child on the way. All four are young and restless. Only the Arab Omar (Piter Marek) is content to sit in his convenience store and watch.

There is powerful magic in Cram’s words and in the plot of the play. The first act is called Love and Hairspray and the second is called Jesus and the Pacific. Those four things: love, AquaNet hairspray, religious faith, and the Pacific Ocean, that endlessly undulating cool wet expanse as far away and as different from hot, flat, dry Fuente as is imaginable. In the first act the magic is subtly manifest in the odd aroma of the AquaNet on sale in Omar’s store, but in the second act it is overt and unmistakable as Adela and Omar’s daughter Blair-Maria (Jeanine Serralles), and her belongings, float and hover for no apparent reason. The Roman Catholic priest Father Gustavo (Escamilla again) hopes she is possessed – her exorcism could be his ticket to Rome – but Adela has larger fears based in her knowledge of the matriarchal bloodline running back to a group of South American witches, and of what she herself is capable.

Soledad channels Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins’ character from the 1980’s prime-time soap Dynasty) while Esteban hungers for her. They run away in his truck but become stranded in somewhere that is even more of a nowhere than Fuente. Abandoned, Chapparo becomes mad with grief and destroys Omar’s ability to continue watching. Adela comes to Omar’s rescue, and the two confess that they have been lovers for some time and that the child she is carrying is his. Together they launch a successful chain of Seven Eleven franchise and raise their daughter Blair-Maria (named after the character of Blair Warner on The Facts of Life and the Virgin Mary), the one who hovers, until, on the eve of her senior prom, the magic comes full circle and she and a boy named Denver make the final escape from Fuente.

My initial fear, as I listened to Escamilla declaim Cram’s lyrical and insistent words in the opening monologue, was that the rhythm of the writing was going to overcome the story being told. I wondered, in fact, if the play was written in verse, which it isn’t but it has its very own unique pitch and sway, an irregular regularity like the rise and fall of the oft’ evoked Pacific Ocean. Escamilla and Brawley are either particularly susceptible to this rhythm or Cram heard it more intensely as she was writing Chapparo and Soledad’s scenes together because it is there that it is at its strongest. It falls away almost entirely in Act II when those two characters are very little in evidence.

The six performers are very strong and very appealing. Serralles is particularly winsome (and this is not a winsome play) as Blair-Maria. She is obviously no longer a teenager, but with her petite frame she can pass and she channels the endless attitude and sudden out-croppings of sexuality peculiar to that age very well. Escamilla is an actor who does not fit into any neat compartments when it comes to appearance or performance, which makes him an excellent choice to perform in this unique and eccentric play. Brawley makes you understand why all the guys love and lust after Soledad, while Guevara makes a nice transition from wild youth to conservative middle age between acts one and two. At first the character of Omar struck me as a semi-offensive sterotypical middle-easterner, but Marek’s performance and Cram’s writing developed him into a sympathetic character and the true heart of the play.

The cast has been expertly directed by Sturgis Warner on Brian Prather’s bleak set. My only complaint was the rather compulsive rearranging of wooden benches between each scene in the first act. The endless grey-brown dust for which Fuente is so famous stretch across one playing space through a wooden proscenium, through a second playing area to an even further horizon on the back wall of the theatre that glows red with D. Benjamin Courtney’s lighting design until the final scene.

The costume design is attributed to Guy Lee Bailey and I thought it worked quite well, although for some reason Brawley’s Soledad is not wearing the same outfit in the press photos as she was on the opening night. I liked the white top and jeans that I saw her wearing better than the dress you are seeing her in here.

I have tried to describe a play and an experience that really defies description, and for that reason alone I would urge you to see Fuente with the caveat that it does contain strong language, on-stage violence, and one bit of simulated sex. If these things offend you, stay away, and please don’t bring young children. But if you are not disturbed by such things, Fuente is truly a unique and delightful theatrical experience. And if you do go, please, please, please don’t leave at intermission, even if you aren’t thrilled by Act I. There is a definite pay-off to staying the course. At intermission I had mixed emotions about the play, but by the final curtain I was absolutely enchanted. Cram’s magic had worked on me and I will never be the same.

The Barrington Stage Company production of Fuente runs through July 17 at their Stage II space in Mt. Everett Regional High School on Berkshire School Road in Sheffield, MA. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission and is for mature audiences only. Call the box office 413-528-8888 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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