In Jose Rivera's Cloud Tectonics, the newest show to hit Emerson Stage, a massive, almost biblical flood engulfs all of Los Angeles. In the midst of this downpour, a lonely Los Angeles International Airport baggage handler named Anibal (Miguel Septiem) finds a pregnant woman, Celestina (Kimberly McGuire), by the side of the road. He offers her a ride and eventually invites her back to his house. What happens next is ineffable-one must see and absorb this production in order to understand the elusive, dreamlike romance that takes hold of its two central characters. Analyzing any of this show in mere technical terms would be to diminish the all-encompassing aura of magical realism that Tara Wiseman, the show's director, has worked so hard to emphasize in Rivera's text.
"This is a beautiful love story mainly because it's contained in a genre that is both real and imaginary," Wiseman said. "It's a genre where everyday miracles infiltrate its characters lives."
Cloud Tectonics is told mostly through the scope of Anibal's memory as an old man, making the intangible elements of magical realism a necessity in articulating his past.
"It's a journey that actually starts in his epilogue and travels back in time to the beginning of this love story." Thus, every aspect of the play, including the dialogue, is heightened and concentrated into one stormy night so as to appear like a brief and indecipherable dream.
The set design of Wiseman's interpretation, which will be performed in the intimate setting of the Greene Theatre from April 3-5, reflects this hazy sensation of memory. Only pockets of the sparsely-furnished stage are highlighted at certain moments, as if they've just been retrieved from the past.
"Usually there is a lot of spectacle in terms of the set," Wiseman said about recent productions of the play. "But all you really need to utilize is Rivera's story and his words."
The love story is encapsulated by one night in Anibal's craftsman home, but Rivera plays with the concept of time to such an extent that we are never quite sure how long the events in Cloud Tectonics last.
This fleeting quality that Rivera lends to his writing only adds to the ephemeral atmosphere that makes his show difficult to rationalize and even explain.
When Anibal, for instance, asks how many months Celestina has been pregnant, she tells him that she's been carrying her child for over two years. After the two talk throughout the night about their pasts, we are told that forty years have suddenly gone by. Time is synonymous only with the shared act of love and human connection. "When you're truly happy time stands still, or at least, it feels like it's standing still, Wiseman said. "The love that these two characters have for each other occurs in what seems like the blink of an eye."
That said, there is nothing rushed or melodramatic about the relationship that forms between Anibal and Celestina. This is a love cultivated by their shared Mexican heritage as well as by their ability to reveal the darkest and most personal aspects of their lives to one another without feeling shame or embarrassment.
Cloud Tectonics dismisses conventional storytelling with its mystifying take on the relativity of time-there is no distinct beginning, middle and end-while the characters of Anibal, Celestina and Nelson (Anibal's brother, played by Eric Rollins) help ground the story in everyday naturalism and believability. These are real, relatable human beings who, through their words and conversations, eventually take on the archetypal concepts of life, love and death. Celestina, in Wiseman's words, "is not really a religious Mary figure. She got knocked up, she likes sex." She's a normal human being who just so happens to defy the inevitability of time.
Through these three characters, Rivera gives us an open window into a world of profound, unanswerable questions and speculations, all expressed through the genre of magical realism. By the end of Cloud Tectonics, one cannot help but ponder what time actually means and whether or not it dictates our own lives or if we, in fact, are able to control it.
Love and its ability to change people, however, remains an unfettered force of enlightenment throughout the show. "It's all about the continuation of hope," Wiseman said, "that life goes on-that the magic continues."