It all starts at breakneck speed with two lovers clashing fencing foils. Cassandra wants only to marry, move in together and nest. But don’t confuse her for a gentle flower; her temperament is unquenchable fire. She is played with an incredible emotional elasticity by Emma Drinkwater, whose expression I couldn’t take my eyes from, even in the rare quiet moments of the piece. Lorenzo (in the virtuoso hip-gyrating hands of Aaron Anthony) has a more light-hearted approach to life, but is also more aloof. He once took joy in the chase of their blossoming relationship, but now…
America is newly ruled by an unelected military junta. It is a comic establishment whose powers are absolute and immediate. And their first decree was to outlaw death itself. Poor Dr Wilson’s (Julian Protheroe, whose American accent falters at points and whose comic timing isn’t quite as on point as his colleagues) job as a medical practitioner has become much less exciting as he tends to the lovers.
Through this setup playwright José Rivera is able to test how far true love can stretch. What happens when marriage vows don’t just bind you together for the rest of your lives, but for eternity? And, because these laws can be undone just as quickly if the establishment so decides: how do you cope when your love has moved on into death, but you are forbidden to die? But though expectations of a naturalistic plotline are soon abandoned, what makes Human Emotional Process work is that in all this chaos Rivera, Director Raymi Ortuste Quiroga, and the performers preserve the realism in the characters’ emotional responses. How else can I explain the gut-wrenching feeling I shared with them, when one lover catches sight of their love’s ghost applying a fresh lick of paint to the bedroom walls?
But it was the style of the writing that I left most impressed by. The dialogue is laced like an intricate web with figurative imagery and enlightening allusions that reminded me a great deal of Junot Diaz’s novels. It is this dialogue that drives the first 45 minutes at a pace that is absolutely rapturous.
Quiroga has unified his production in their assault on the abstract concept, and impressive thought has been paid to other creative areas too. Designers Barbara Kloos and Julia Buckmiller have created a wrapped tree structure, a centrepiece of Lorenzo and Cassandra’s childhood, built around the space’s central column. The jagged skeletons of de-canvassed umbrellas that festoon its branches are a fitting allusion to the lack of shelter in this dystopian America. Likewise William Adams’ lighting design, while adeptly separating minimal stage space when split staging becomes necessary, is at other moments vibrant to an extreme, a risk that delivers: allowing the production to pass on flavours of the synesthetic afterlife.
I had my reservations at first that the characters were falling too easily into expected gender roles within a given relationship – Cassandra to settle, Lorenzo to spread his seed, and the virile Dr Wilson to chase the younger woman. But there is nothing that implies this is an everyman scenario, and I’m willing to accept that Rivera is choosing to comment only on these particular archetypes.
The second act did noticeably dip however. The narrative’s direction dictates that pace and style must change. While Cassandra and Lorenzo’s relationship sees more drama in the four days of Act 1 than a real relationship could in a lifetime, we step into another dimension in Act 2 and much longer loquacious monologues slow the pace. Consequently, some of the magnetic pull of the characters’ rifle-firing dialogue pre-interval is lost.
Human Emotional Process is part of Chaskis Theatre’s Las Americas Above festival in the Arts Theatre’s space above throughout until mid-August, for which Quiroga is the founder and artistic director. It includes another three plays as well as Q&As, music, comedy and events from local playwrights and young actors too. Quite the full-on programme. And if this production is anything to go by, it will be something to witness this electric event maintain such energy.
Human Emotional Process plays above the Arts Theatre on select days throughout August as part of the Las Amercas Above Festival. See the Arts Theatre’s website for more information and tickets.
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli