What You Leave Out

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtainon LA Theater for KCRW.

The director Tina Landau once told me, "The most important decisions are not always what you choose to put on the stage, sometimes they're what you choose to leave out."

Se Llama Cristina, the Theatre at Boston Court's latest production is a perfect example of the power of subtraction and abstraction.

The play opens with two bodies writhing on the floor. A man. A woman. It seems vaguely sexual but also violently abstract. As the limbs and the text come into sharper focus, we discover that this couple is coming out of a drug addled haze, or maybe they're still in it. The man looks down horrified to discover a needle still in his arm - an image all the more haunting given the news of recent days. He doesn't know how it got there. He swears he doesn't do that stuff. He doesn't know who this woman is. She can't remember her real name. Worse, in the corner is a baby’s bassinet . . . but instead of a child the only thing in it is a chicken leg.

The dramatic engine of the 80-minute one-act is this couple piecing together the details of how, and why, they found themselves in this squalid room and what were they trying to escape by shooting up. The action and dialogue reaches into flashback to make sense of the present and ultimately make a decision about the future. It's a bit like the film Memento, written in the style of early Sam Shepard.

It's easy to imagine a hyper-realistic production of this play written by Octavio Solis. You can imagine the seedy, filthy one-room apartment next to the interstate: bare mattress surrounded by motel furniture; papers competing for floor space with fast-food wrappers; the walls an oppressive, grundgy brown.

Fortunately, Director Robert Castro has chosen to leave all this out: to abstract the room of the play into something more elemental. Hovering, inches above the stage floor, is a fluorescent box creating a sort of shin-high boxing ring that delineates the playing space. High above, on the back wall of the empty stage, is a glowing, pulsing set of doors. This setting, designed by LA artist Gronk, is eerie and mysterious.

Mr. Castro embraces this act of subtraction and carries into the physical storytelling. As the couple pieces together their shared history, their bodies enact a gestural dance that, like the set, functions more symbolically than literally.

Now, at this point, you're either longing for that hyper-realistic, straight forward production or, like me, willing to embrace a world that's a little less defined, a little more poetic. While the journey into Se Llama Cristina can be a little disorienting and ungrounded, ultimately it's the actor's performances that provide something to hold onto in a story that for all it's poetry is really quite simple. At its heart, it's a couple faced with the terror of how to escape their pasts to become the parents they need to be.

Se Llama Cristina plays at the Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena through February 23.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time 80 minutes without an intermission.

Banner image: Paula Christensen and Justin Huen in Se Llama Cristina. Photo Ed Krieger