The stage is a large, white circle, perhaps of fabric, like a bedsheet. Across it stretches a long, red, rectangular cloth. A man takes up one end of it, a woman the other, and the cloth becomes their connection in a slow dance, the man and woman winding toward and away from each other.
This is the first image in Victor Hugo Rascón Banda's El Deseo/Desire, a play directed with intense physicality by Eva Tessler for Borderlands Theater. It is also a recurring image, as through the play the two characters circle each other, tangled in that vibrant red connecting fabric that never truly binds them together.
The woman is Susan (Carlisle Ellis), a middle-aged college professor, an intellectual, yet a person capable of greater passion than she can sensibly handle. The man is Victor (Victor Carpinteiro), a Colombian-born driver Susan met in Tijuana and brought to Los Angeles ostensibly to work as her chauffeur and gardener, but of course Susan's flowerbed isn't all that's getting furrowed. The two delight in a relationship that is wholly sexual. Susan seems ambivalent about her happiness; Victor is gleeful, and just a little smug. He is a very young man, the age of Susan's students. He speaks little English, and she speaks almost no Spanish.
Victor is from Cartagena, where his extended family lives at the mercy of drug lords and guerrillas. Susan is from New York City, which for her is a place of the mind and the overfull datebook. They live together in Los Angeles, a city Susan identifies with physicality and indulgence. Perhaps it is the only place in America where Susan and Victor could coexist.
And yet they do not coexist easily. How could they, considering the language barrier, the cultural differences and the age difference, not to mention the usual tensions of the male-female dynamic? They are both people of desire, yet beyond the need for sex with each other, their desires are too different, hardly complementary.
To a degree, Rascón Banda relies on certain cultural clichés: When a white First World woman takes a Third World man as a lover, as these stories always go, the woman is driven by sexual attraction to the exotic, and the man is a beautiful savage who needs to be tamed just enough not to be embarrassing in a restaurant. Reverse the genders, though, and a white man is usually seen as the savior of an oppressed and abused woman of color. Rascón Banda toys with this reversal cliché a bit; Victor knows full well that things may have turned out badly for him had Susan not brought him to L.A. Of all the Spanish words that flow from his lips, two never seem to register with Susan: Ayúdame. Sálvame.
This is a bilingual production of a play originally written in Spanish for a Mexican audience. Borderlands persuaded Rascón Banda to translate Susan's lines into English and have each character speak a smattering of the other's language, one sometimes echoing what the other is saying. Yet, to emphasize the linguistic and cultural gap between the two characters, many long passages go by in a single language without any sort of translation beyond the inflections and gestures of the actors, and the dancelike interludes that amplify many of the interactions. Toward the end, for example, when the relationship is falling apart, but Victor thinks he has the upper hand in a certain conflict, his dancing becomes self-absorbed and defiant, even though his basic movement has hardly changed from earlier, more innocently joyful dances. (Director Tessler's dance background comes in handy here.)
Carpinteiro and Ellis are actors, not dancers, so this is not a full merging of disciplines. But under Tessler's guidance, they use every technique at their disposal to convey their characters' intentions, both explicit and implicit.
Perhaps in order to get the points across to monolingual audiences (opening night had a heartening number of Hispanics in the audience, who were probably fully bilingual; it was the gringos who were in occasional trouble), the acting is a bit more heightened than usual at Borderlands. Carpinteiro's work is fluid, full of smooth, swift gesture, and Ellis, who is always an expressive artist anyway, adapts Carpinteiro's style to her own purposes during her soliloquies. Both actors are quite fine, Carpinteiro ably managing Victor's playfulness as well as his resentment, and Ellis fully at home in what is becoming her specialty: playing smart women of a certain age whose sexuality has, if anything, intensified through the years.
Despite the efforts of everyone from the playwright to the actors, a monolingual audience will miss some of the characters' nuance and detail. But that lack of complete understanding and fulfillment is necessary to a play called Desire, which is something that by definition cannot survive consummation.