Dream Theatre Company. By Jeremy Menekseoglu. Directed by Laura Gouin. With Nicole Roberts, Menekseoglu, Alif Muhammad, Candace Kitchens. 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kevin Thomas
In south Texas, Mary (Nicole Roberts) has run away from her abusive husband when she meets Willy (Jeremy Menekseoglu), a kind, if creepy, stranger who offers her shelter at his not-actually-girlfriend’s (Candace Kitchens) motel. The two find solace in each other from their isolation and seemingly meaningless lives. Of course, Willy may also be responsible for the gruesome murders of illegal immigrants whose bodies have been washing up in the Rio Grande, and a hard-nosed Mexican Federal (Alif Muhammad) is determined to find out, protocol be damned.
Music and sound ebb over the production, as characters breathe through the dust and heat of the desert, navigating their small corner of America that might be forgotten if not for the border. The set of ramshackle boards draped in shadows is dominated by a single enormous television screen that replaces scenery. As in a film, the background shines wide for every scene, bringing the color, the grit, the scope of the west into an otherwise small story. The Rio’s deserted bars, bare wires and scratched walls speak volumes. Kailee Tomasic's set design and the sound design, also by Menekseoglu, are unparalleled.
Ultimately, of course, a play is not a movie, and Rio’s music and atmosphere fill out dialogue that can’t hold attention by itself—as you’ll notice whenever the music stops. From concept to execution, this was a story to throw light and noise at, not one to delve into human detail. It resists evolution or thematic progression. Events don’t unfold, they just happen. The sensation is like huddling up to a ’70s movie at two in the morning; it’ll feel pretty, dirty and a little subversive, so long as you don’t wake up.
The cast acts the hell out of it, particularly its author, Menekseoglu. His transformations from kindly to killer are overdone, over-the-top, and as such a perfect fit for his play. When his evil voice materializes it takes over the room, eats up the shadows and drags corpses over every grain of wood. It’s a good thing the four players bring charisma, because the writing is spectacularly inconsistent. Mary is timid some scenes, aggressive the next, spiritual in a third, violent in a fourth. The Federal is either a badass, a fool or a coward. The characters behave according to what is supposed to happen in each scene, not as they are. For all that the story is strikingly Coen Brothers–esque, it lacks the strongest element: A keen understanding of the constantly shifting relationships between people, and especially between weird, disconnected strangers.
Eventually, this translates to a climax that is at times scary and at times nonsensically ridiculous. Rio is excellent when it's living in its uniquely dramatic atmosphere. Rio is terrible when it tries to surprise you. It wants to push towards a chaotic, meaningful ending, but the content really isn’t there to support it. Somehow in all the strangeness there’s still satisfaction, but underneath it is still a B-movie, struggling to reach that next level.