“Hearing an actor speak in her native language is a natural outgrowth of this play’s quest for a more authentic engagement with another culture,” writes David Muse, Artistic Director of Studio Theatre, about the opening production of their 2023-24 season. Studio’s first foray into bilingual theatre provides strong performances and a technically seamless production in the intimate space of the Milton Theatre. If you harbor any hesitation about enjoying a fully bilingual performance, put your fears aside. Studio’s supertitles work smoothly and you may even forget you are reading them as the story develops and you join the two characters on their emotional journeys.
…a technically seamless production…remarkably complex and engaging performances.
We first meet Adriana (the compelling Legna Cedillo), the head of housekeeping at a resort in Cancún, who speaks both Spanish and English. As she begins her story, we learn she left her parents’ house in Chetumal, Mexico at 19 and ran off with her boyfriend Nicolás to a new life in the tourist capital. There, she travels daily from her apartment via hotel bus to her job at the hotel. In a way, she has traded the isolation of her family’s distant village home for the sequestration of the serving class at an artificial resort community. She has earned her promotion to supervisor likely due to her ability to work so effectively with the foreign customers, “I’m here, but not here. My specialty,” she says as she checks off the completed tasks in a guest room, “Mirrors (espejos): clean.”
Sarah (Lauren Karaman) is a guest from Vancouver and speaks only English. She is a reluctant maid of honor at her younger sister’s destination wedding. Overtly a trainwreck of insecurities, guilt, and binge drinking, she is nonetheless entertaining in Karaman’s delightful interpretation. But Sarah has a secret. A long-hidden trauma from her youth has left her incapable of feeling any joy for her sister or compassion for her mother’s obsessive micromanagement of the event. Adriana has a secret too, and a sudden loss forces her to reflect upon her own history of family violence and abuse. These two wounded women, experiencing the world through their particular eyes, are bound to misunderstand one another for more than just cultural reasons. The play concludes by suggesting that they have learned something about one another by acknowledging their misunderstanding of each other’s behavior.
However, the play is conceptually flawed. Rather than revealing the pain and lost opportunities due to cultural miscommunication as playwright Christine Quintana seems to intend, the audience experiences repeated misunderstandings due to the play’s unnecessarily confusing structure. Adriana and Sarah do not meet until the very last moment of an over-long first act and attempt to communicate only briefly. Was the play originally intended as a solo performance by Adriana? Perhaps there were references to a White hotel guest who was later turned into the separate character of Sarah? As it stands, it plays as two monologues that dance around each other and rarely intersect. Quintana has chosen to introduce several imaginary sequences in the second act that confuse the action rather than moving the story forward. One of these includes particularly distasteful images of sexual torture that are in tonal conflict with the rest of the play.
Despite problems with the script, Cedillo and Karaman turn in remarkably complex and engaging performances. Raul Obrego’s spare set—three simple chairs on a crisp surface of white tile—would seem to provide director Elena Araoz little to work with, but she uses the minimal staging with extraordinary expertise, allowing the actors to be the single most creative element of the performance. We are whisked from hotel room, to beach, to bus, and to dance floor without provoking disbelief. Luis Garcia’s projections allow us to feel the temperature, texture, and vibe of the real and the “enhanced” Mexico.
Running Time: Approximately two hours including one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Strong language and mention of sexual abuse and torture.
“Espejos: Clean” runs through October 22, 2023 at Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. For more information and tickets, call the Box Office at 202-332-3300 Tuesday – Thursday, Noon – 6:00 pm (until 6:30 pm when performance scheduled); Friday, Noon – 6:00 pm (until 7:00 pm when performance scheduled); Saturday, Noon – 7:00pm (performance days only); and Sunday, Noon – 6:00 pm (performance days only) or go online.