Encore Michigan

Svich’s “agua de luna” at The Matrix ponders getting by in the “D”

Review February 27, 2016 Martin F. Kohn

Late in Caridad Svich’s brand new play, agua de luna (psalms for the rouge), a man visits his pregnant wife (or girlfriend) in the hospital. She refuses the donuts he’s brought, explaining that she needs to eat better. One way or another, everybody in agua de luna is insufficiently nourished.

Commissioned by southwest Detroit’s Matrix Theatre Company with substantial grants, agua de luna is in part the result of time the nationally recognized playwright spent in the neighborhood, but Svich points out in the program that her play is set in “a place that may be Southwest Detroit.”

Episodic, poetic, enigmatic, symbolic, resonant, agua de luna is told in its own way but falls squarely in the honored category of American plays where no one is happy. The plays characters are three working-class couples, the 108-year-old grandmother of one of the men, and a timeless all-knowing narrator who doubles as a dog.

Packed with symbols that aren’t always easy to decode—fire, water, fire on the river, flowers, the opera “Carmen,” the moon, a hummingbird, a broken transistor radio—agua de luna is a play of almost unrelieved bleakness. All three male characters work salvaging scrap metal; other jobs are hinted at. The women are similarly employed in dead-end occupations: caregiver, clerk in a convenience store, a job at a Coney Island restaurant.

Except for Maria, the caregiver, kindness is in short supply, suggesting that empathy, like better food, is something of a luxury for people whose time and energy must be spent trying to make ends meet.

Not unlike, perhaps, the greater environment the neighborhood is in. “You are a dog in an old broken city trying to make itself new,” 108-year-old Teresa May (Myrna Segura) says to her dog, Rooster (an elaborate puppet on the left hand of Torri Lynn Ashford). Given one of the play’s occasional monologues, Segura delivers it most effectively, making her way all around the stage (there are seats on three sides) and establishing serious eye contact with every audience member.

One instance where the play becomes neighborhood-specific is a vivid description of the art-and-graffiti-ridden inside of an abandoned train station.

Although there are moments of reverie or aspiration –“The light of the sun will find us,” says Teresa May’s grandson, Beto (Justino Solis)—the play is more about getting by, about enduring. The urban landscape of agua de luna is in a way reminiscent of the hardscrabble rural Maine in Carolyn Chute’s novels.

The actors perform with conviction and commitment. Besides the aforementioned, they are Samir Ajluni, Amy Chodhury Martin, Aja Salakastar Dier, Chris Jakob and Bethany Hedden.

Director Sherrine Azab makes maximum use of the idiosyncratic stage; scenes are staged in various spots so every playgoer has the opportunity to be face-to-face with the cast. The configuration is something like a small football field (the house holds only about 45); you’re probably best off at the 50-yard line.

Although the play is a series of vignettes and no over-arching narrative is interrupted, frequent scene changes stop the proceedings in their tracks.

Agua de luna is the sort of play that invites subsequent reading. I hope it gets published and the Matrix Theatre folks see themselves known to posterity as the first to stage Svich’s drama.

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