Premeditation at Arts Emerson Mesmerizes with a Film Noir Battle of the Sexes (4.5 stars)

by Johnny Monsarrat

 

Premeditation, written by Evelina Fernandez, directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela, produced by The Latino Theater Company, at Arts Emerson, running May 4-14, 2016, www.artsemerson.org.

 

It's the war of the sexes, and all four combatants have a gun. The two married couples have had 25 years to steam over whether to love or kill each other. Now it's decision time.

 

Premeditation is a film noir but also a comedy, set in modern Los Angeles but with 1940s themes, where four people in two troubled marriages come into conflict. Fog fills the theater as the play opens, representing the minds of Esmerelda and Fernando, and Mauricio and Lydia, whose thinking is clouded by decades of marital miscommunication and resentment. Both kinds of sparks fly -- romantic and deadly -- but which one will win out as a plot is hatched, when there's nothing wrong with a marriage that can't be fixed by a bullet?

 

The show is a bold and unique experience unlike anything I have seen before. While the characters interact, tense, throbbing music plays and the lights glow the color of blood. The entire back wall of the set on stage becomes a screen onto which black and white video is projected, underscoring the emotional themes. When characters reflect on the past, we see their memories projected. Fog continues to pour onto the set, with the cast comically adding fog from spray cans, putting the audience into a dreamland.

 

Even the scene changes are remarkable, with the actors dancing and spinning furniture on wheels, which gives the play a forward momentum, thanks to choreographer and movement coordinator Urbanie Lucero. It's as if life moves onwards with force matter how we try to stop or slow it, and the angst of getting older is a theme of the show. There is no stillness even in-between scenes. Part of the play has a kind of forward momentum even without dialogue and plot, as we dwell on emotional tones, set to music, light, and the dominating video, with lighting and projection design by Pablo Santiago and sound design by John Zalewski. The production is mesmerizing, with perfect dialogue, especially when the two couples, who seem so different, play two separate scenes on stage at the same time, with their lines cleverly intermixed to show how similar they really are.

 

The casting and acting do the play justice. The cast is completely committed whether it's to drama or comedy, and the show has several laugh out loud lines as well as touching and insightful commentary on aging and long marriages. Kudos especially to Angela Moya (Lydia) and Sal Lopez (Mauricio), who play the more "of all the gin joints in the world" couple. Lydia is a homicidal nutjob, and yet Moya finds the humor and allows the audience to empathize. Lopez seems to be born to play a tough guy with a heart of gold who is restrained on the outside, but on the inside... also homicidal. (Don't worry, the other two characters in this four-person play are also homicidal.) Moya and Lopez find physical and linguistic motifs that make their characters notable. The entire cast incorporates physical humor, at least in the first half of the play, which indicates a well-rehearsed production that had time to add nuance.

 

The show is very accessible, even to ordinary guys like me -- I have no theatrical aspirations or pretensions -- who can get bored or overwhelmed by artistry at theatre shows so easily. (I'm talking to you, Tom Stoppard, and I'm still angry about being tricked into seeing No Exit, thirty years ago.) I noticed and appreciated that vital plot points get repeated to make sure the audience can follow along. The 90 minute run of the show with no intermission seems to fly by with never a dull moment to pull me out of the show to my own thoughts. But you'll also find some intellectual depth about married love, perhaps most importantly that spouses remain idealistic despite all that has happened. Still, it is more of a delightful ride than something so thought provoking that it will change your life.

 

I always applaud brave productions, and as I said, Premeditation is mesmerizingly successful in not just presenting, but drawing you deeply into its world. Unfortunately, the show had two differing tones. The scenery, lighting, and video are very much characters in the show, but did not quite find their levels against the cast. The first two thirds of the performance had great verbal and physical comedy, but the combination of the dark video, ominous music, and blood red lighting created such a heavy effect that the comedy got somewhat buried. (The genre of Premeditation is not supposed to really be film noir. It's a parody of film noir.)

 

At times even the dialogue (the cast uses no microphones) was overshadowed by the music, which created tension through dark tones rather than through melodies, and might have been more varied, or allowed more silence. I once read an interview in which a television showrunner said that the more silence you have in a production, the more you are trusting the substance of your drama to move people without needing an emotional guide.

 

Perhaps that's why in the final third of the show, which had much more dialogue, the music, video, and lighting were pulled back substantially. But we also lost the dancing and physical comedy of the first section. More troubling, the production succeeds remarkably in setting a 1940s tone, with hair styles, set design, costuming by Naila Aladdin Sanders, and much of the plot set in this genre. Unfortunately this is then undercut by the unnecessary use of cell phones, which could have been written out, and the pop culture references, which place a play firmly in a specific year. Pop culture humor is rarely the best comedy, and Premeditation could have been more a remark on the timeless nature of marriage throughout all of history not being set in a specific era. Also, I realize The Latino Theater Company is from California, but with the Los Angeles college and sports team references (and location of the play unimportant to the plot) they lost an easy opportunity to bond with a Boston audience with local references. There were also a few times when the actors crossed the room purely for blocking, without a character reason to do so.

 

For the above reasons, I cannot quite give the show 5 stars, but Arts Emerson and the Latino Theater Company are producing important and original work, and I urge everyone to see Premeditation. Premeditation deserves a hearty Maltese Falcon 4.5 stars.

 

Find Premeditation at www.artsemerson.org.