Full disclosure: my expectations for shows that are put up on “theater row” in Hollywood are low. For every one good play on that stretch of Santa Monica between Highland and Vine, there are ten painful renditions of “Proof,” five embarrassing actor showcases, and at least three productions by students taking classes in the Complex.
So when I saw that my scheduled Friday evening out to see Jose Rivera’s "References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot" was at the Art/Works Theatre on Santa Monica and Wilcox, I got that sinking feeling in my stomach that said, there goes two hours of my life, spent wincing in bad-acting agony.
But Rivera was mentored by none other than the reigning deity of Latin American surrealism: Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Based on that alone, I was game to give it a try – if a play is going to go down as a magnificent mess, it may as well incorporate the personification of some inanimate objects, and maybe even a little anthropomorphism for good measure.
“References” centers around Gabriela (Carolina Phipps), a beautiful Latina who everyone -- from celestial bodies to wild animals to prepubescent boys -- wants to fuck. But Gabriela has spent the past year living alone in the desert and waiting for her husband to return home from war, and she’s become fixated on gazing up at the universe, courtesy of the Barstow night sky. Attempts to get in her pants seem to fall on deaf ears and unfeeling nerves.
Over the course of the first act, as Gabriela whittles away all her free time by watching the stars tell their stories, her cat (Elysa Gomez) is seduced by a wild coyote (Sam Sagheb), the moon (Koco Limbevski) tries to make love to her, and she’s peeping-Tommed by her 14-year-old neighbor, Martin (Julian Works), all of which she accepts with only lazy, passive attention.
When the play opened and Phipps uttered her first line, I thought I was doomed to a night of slinking down into my seat and burying my nose deep in the flimsy program. She plowed over it like a tractor, the kind of delivery that usually indicates a flat and nervous performance to come.
But following a rocky first ten minutes or so, Phipps got her shit – and her timing – together and then some, and along with the rest of the cast proved without a doubt that I should not be so quick to discount theater row.
While Phipps was still getting over what may have been jitters, Elysa Gomez as the Cat took the proverbial ball and batted it around, played with it between her paws and slapped it into the audience before I had time to realize what was happening. Voluptuous, seductive and completely unafraid, Gomez unleashed such unabashed sensuality that if the Broadway musical of her character''s name had channeled only a tenth of her appeal, it would have run for three times as long as it’s five million years.
Ruben Ortiz as Gabriela’s husband, Benito, brings to the table enough energy for the entire cast, if they needed it (which they don’t). By the time Ortiz makes the scene, Phipps is on top of her game, and the chemistry between the two of them is so intense it actually made me blush right there in the dark. I felt almost uncomfortably voyeuristic watching them fight, love and fight again.
The smoke and mirrors that Gabriela comes to understand to be our earthly vision of the universe mimics her realization that her husband has become a stranger to her, and that her feelings about herself, her marriage and her life have been just as elusive as the light of the moon. “I can’t keep pretending,” she says at one point.
There is not a weak link in this cast. Each brings to the table something unique to breathe life into Gabriela’s world. The director, Will Pellegrini, also manages to create an underlying sexual tension that builds up so subtly that by the time someone does finally fuck Gabriela, you suddenly realize that you’ve wanted it to happen since the lights first came up on her.
This play is one of those gems of L.A. theater that will be gone if you blink. Get out and see it while you can