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Theatre in Review: Seven Spots on the Sun/Derren Brown: Secret

Top: Sean Carvajal, Flor De Liz Pererz. Photo: Russ Rowland. Bottom: Derren Brown. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

In Martín Zimmerman's new drama -- presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in association with The Sol Project -- the cankered legacy of civil war in a South American country breeds fresh horrors in peacetime. The locale is unnamed, but the particulars are all too familiar: Following a coup, the military junta's army is pitted against a guerilla uprising, with everyone else in danger of becoming collateral damage. The playwright introduces two couples, both of whom are caught up in the strife, setting them on a collision course without tipping his hand about the events that link them. Interestingly, he seeds the ugly, often melodramatic action of Seven Spots on the Sun with surprising magic realist touches, spinning a parable about revenge and forgiveness that, in its final showdown, attains a punch-in-the-gut power.

Mónica, a radiant young woman, is married to Luis, a miner; they just about get by on his salary until, one day, he turns up with the stunning gift of a washing machine -- to her, an unimaginable luxury. The news is too good to be true; to finance the purchase, Luis has joined the army. Mónica is initially furious, but even she eventually admits that Luis' soldier's schedule -- five weeks in the field, one week at home -- does wonders for their sex life. But then war breaks out and Luis gradually becomes a different person. The depth of the change is made terribly clear when he comes home missing the top half of his right ring finger; it was severely damaged in an accident, and, rather than convalesce for a month and desert his men, he lopped it off himself. Suddenly, Mónica realizes she is married to a total stranger.

Wartime also forces Moisés, a village doctor, and his wife, Belén, a nurse, to make terrible moral choices, especially when the government army leaves half-dead rebel soldiers in the town, vowing to punish anyone who provides aid. Moisés is rather better at putting the Hippocratic Oath out of his mind -- although not without cost -- but Belén ultimately demands that they rescue a fifteen-year-old rebel whose cries of agony ring out through the neighborhood. It's an act of charity that will have ruinous repercussions for them.

I'm not going to say much more, except to add that these plot lines crash into each other when, after peace has been restored, children across the countryside are afflicted with a disease that manifests itself in outbreaks of boils, and Moisés -- who has lost everything that matters to him -- develops unexplained healing powers. Zimmerman uses this development -- which feels like something out of a novel by Gabriel García Márquez -- to engineer a showdown between blood enemies, a scene that culminates in a ghastly sequence of humiliation and betrayal.

Seven Spots on the Sun is a tricky piece of writing, combining brutal realism with fabulistic plot twists and featuring extensive passages of direct address. But, under the assured direction of Weyni Mengesha, these potentially clashing elements come together to wrenching effect. All five principals make strong contributions, each finding the anguish at the heart of his or her character without overdoing it. Sean Carvajal trenchantly charts the corrosion of Luis' soul, especially in the play's most shocking scene, when he quietly admits to Mónica how, under orders, he committed child murder. Flora Diaz lends a slow-burning intensity to Belén, most tellingingly when she gorges on fresh pineapple -- her favorite food -- in a futile attempt at neutralizing her bad conscience. Flor De Liz Perez, seen only a few months ago to good advantage in Dolphins and Sharks at Labyrinth Theater Company, captures the sheer determination with which Mónica believes she can drag Luis back to life. Rey Lucas' Moisés smolders with unappeased rage, at one point savagely beating apart a radio that has just delivered the announcement of a government amnesty program. Peter Jay Fernandez has several telling moments as a village priest whose moment of cowardice ends in tragedy.

All too appropriately for a play about the ravages of war, the action plays out on Arnulfo Maldonado's set depicting the rotted-out interior of a house. Amith Chandrashaker's unusually supple lighting blends warm and cool white washes, color treatments on the upstage stone wall, and footlight effects from units built into the deck, creating a wide variety of looks. It's not easy to design costumes for a nonspecific location and time frame, but Fabian Aguilar makes sure that each character is appropriately dressed. Tei Blow's sound design includes such effects as radio static, news reports, birdsong, some jolting battle effects, and, most upsettingly, the terrible rattle of soldiers' fists knocking on doors.

Zimmerman resolves this acutely imagined conflict with another miraculous turn of events, a device that could have come off as overwrought, but which proves to be surprisingly right. This is his second work of real quality and power this year; the other was the devastating solo drama On the Exhale. After these two productions, he joins the roster of talents to watch out for.

On an entirely more frivolous note is Derren Brown: Secret -- now playing at, of all places, Atlantic Theatre Company -- an entertainment that I thoroughly enjoyed but about which, alas, I can tell you almost nothing. The star of several well-received West End shows, Brown is a practitioner of what he calls "psychological magic." In some ways, he is a throwback to the mind-reading acts that were popular in the early twentieth century, but, in his offhand wit and remarkable ability at coaxing behaviors out of audience members -- all while seemingly doing nothing -- he is very much a talent of today. Time after time, he reveals facts about apparent total strangers, in one case producing a kind of souvenir that left a woman randomly recruited from the audience open-mouthed in shock. He announces that we will be so engrossed in his act that we will fail to notice a grossly obvious piece of business taking place on the other side of the stage -- and damn it, that's exactly what happens.

Much of the second act is dedicated to an illusion that is so complicated, with so many moving parts, that I began to wonder if Brown might get bogged down in the details. Instead, it provides the occasion for a triple-twist ending that is all but guaranteed to leave you shaking your head in amazement -- especially since Brown candidly admits that he accomplishes his effects through subtle acts of manipulation.

To say more would spoil the show, but I will note that Takeshi Kata's spare setting, Ben Stanton's lighting, Jill BC Du Boff's sound, and Caite Hevner's projections -- including a short video sequence that is the key to that big Act II illusion -- are as thoroughly professional as you would expect. It's hard to know the dimensions of the contribution made by the directors, Andrew O'Connor and Andy Nyman, although it's true that the two-hour production (plus a necessarily long, twenty-minute intermission) flew by in a flash. We've been getting a lot of magic shows lately, but Derren Brown makes the others look like pikers. He practices the greatest disappearing act of all, dispelling the audience's skepticism with a wave of his hand. -- David Barbour

(17 May 2017)

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