PLAYWRIGHT ELAINE Romero may find the term "magical realism" too limiting a description of her style, yet her work does mingle the supernatural with everyday events, much in the manner of today's most popular Latin American authors. Consistently, though, Romero has been more adept at realism than magic. That's certainly the case with her latest effort, ¡Curanderas! Serpents of the Clouds, soon to end its run at the Invisible Theatre.
¡Curanderas! revolves around two healers. Victoria is a young U.S. physician who's completely out of touch with her Mexican heritage; Paloma is a curandera, a Mexican folk healer. Before they can be much good to anyone else, each woman must mend her own heart.
Victoria and Paloma meet on a train to Mexico City, and, mutually rude, take an instant dislike to each other. Victoria, traveling without her fiancé, is cold, arrogant and preoccupied; Paloma, traveling without her husband, is loud, space-consuming and full of unscientific notions. Yet before long the two women share a journey that begins in a museum of mysterious Aztec artifacts and wends through Mexico's timeless, harrowing spirit world.
Romero feeds her characters lines that mix poetic metaphor and earthy colloquialism. This works quite well more often than not, with a couple of jarring exceptions. At the end of the first act, an Aztec spirit announces that she is taking Paloma and Victoria "inside--to the belly button of the moon!" This may have been a muffed line, for in the next act she's talking about the belly button of Mexico, but either way it seems too goofy to come from a character who's supposed to be taken more seriously than, say, the klutzy winged messenger in Angels in America.
As Victoria and Paloma pursue their quest of cultural navel-gazing, they must come to terms with their men. It's love that heals the world, and until the women restore their ability to love, they'll hardly be able to mend others.
Romero is at her best when she is dealing with real humans who can't quite communicate with each other; the deft, light yet edgy opening scene between Paloma and Victoria, and the heartfelt monologue of Paloma's husband are two of the best examples.
Where she falters is in managing the development of relationships. Everything is too abrupt. In Romero's universe, a man and a woman with nothing in common arbitrarily decide to fall in love. With little motivation, the formerly hostile Victoria suddenly blurts out to Paloma "I'm glad you're my friend," and it's all hugs and instant sisterhood. At the first apparition of the Aztec woman, Paloma registers about a nanosecond of gaze-averted incredulity before falling into an easy conversation with the old spirit.
This isn't just because Paloma is accustomed to the supernatural; the same thing happens to more conventional spirit-haunted characters in Romero's Before Death Comes for the Archbishop and Barrio Hollywood. The playwright seems too impatient to savor the heat of the friction between the ordinary world and the metaphysical; she wants to move quickly forward to explore how the realms might gently envelop each other. Matter-of-fact acceptance of the supernatural is essential to magic realism, so Romero might be better off not having her humans resist the spirits at all, token as the effort is.
For the same reason, plucking Victoria and Paloma out of reality and depositing them in the spirit realm may be a miscalculation. On the other hand, the ambiguous setting of most of the second act, which director Deborah Dickey keeps vague even while making the emotions more real, may be one of the play's strengths; Romero is resisting formula, which should be applauded. This play has been in development for four years, and Romero, an inveterate workshopper, probably isn't finished with it yet. The play's future incarnations will be well worth investigating.
Meanwhile, Invisible Theatre is making the best possible case for ¡Curanderas! Jennifer Fisk-Wilken turns in an intense, vital performance as Victoria; her every touch is absolutely genuine, and she doesn't insist on making her character likeable at each turn. Norma Medina is a vibrant Paloma, never farcical in her exuberance and passion. Roberto Garcia does a splendid job of delineating his two quite different characters--Paloma's husband and Victoria's fiancé--often shifting from one to the other in the time it takes to slip a hand from a pocket. Rosanne Couston is similarly fine in a handful of smaller roles, notably as the noble, never spooky, Aztec woman.
The action plays out against a fine set by Susan Claassen and James Blair evoking an ancient temple, and the quasi-archaic music by Alice Gomez contributes much to a story rife with visions and passions.
¡Curanderas! Serpents of the Clouds concludes its run this weekend at the Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 14; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, December 15 and 16; and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, December 17. Tickets cost $16 to $20. For reservations, call 882-9721.