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Glenda Frank

Cristina's World

"Manipulation" by Victoria E. Calderon. Directed by Will Pomerantz.
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., NYC.
Opened June 28, 2011. Open run. Tues. – Sat. at 8 PM. Sat. at 2, Sun.at 3 and 7 PM.
Tickets $68.50.
Box Office: ( 212)-239-6200; (800)-432-7250 or http://www.manipulationtheplay.com.
Reviwed by Glenda Frank on July 5, 2011.

For the Mexican playwright Victoria E. Calderon, as for the Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes, the personal is the political. Calderon is also a Mexican journalist, whose writing seems to reference political events in Latin America during the decades of brutal dictatorships. "Manipulation," her current play, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, focuses on Cristina (Marina Squerciati), the beautiful young wife of a ruthless businessman (Robert Bogue). He is proud of his machismo and tells Cristina that it is her duty is to accept him as he is, including his infidelities and neglect. Meanwhile outside their comfortable world (on the upper level of the stage and behind the walls), a revolution is threatening the stability of the country.

In Cristina's struggle to find happiness, she is offered palliatives, which one by one prove ineffective. Her mother (Saundra Santiago), at first an ally, suggests a younger lover (Rafi Silver), but relief is temporary. Her husband offers wealth and travel, but while Paris is a treat she must return. Her mother sets up counselling sessions, but the therapist (Jeremy Stiles Holm) decides on a more hands-on therapy. Cristina feels like a puppet, and in a brilliantly staged, metaphorical scene, she is removed by on-stage puppeteers from her husband's embrace but he does not notice. At one point her mother proclaims, "This is the price you have to pay to be safe," and we hear the sound of gunfire outside.

Fueled by rage, Cristina steps out of her class and takes a working-class lover, a poet (Brendan McMahon). Only later does she learn that he is the leader of the insurrection, and that he, too, like all the other males in her life, follows the code of machismo. Her only escape is through fantasy. In the final vision, she is in charge and all the other character move like marionettes on strings. The play ends with a projection of Caravaggio's portrait of Judith decapitating Holofernes – which conflates Cristina's rage with a gesture of freedom for her people.

Playwrights with vision are rare and welcome, but often they become overly ambitious and forget to dramatize. "Manipulation" opens with Cristina's nightmare, a puppet enactment of scenes from the French Revolution. The puppeteers in black are active throughout the 90 minute play, and at times the production is very confusing. "Manipulation" works best if audiences understand Cristina's journey as a political allegory and can tie the Latin American abuses to those of 18th century France. The first 2011 production at Cherry Lane opened and closed in May. The current production, now directed by Will Pomerantz, who has a stellar reputation for his work with new plays, reopened in June with some cast changes. Pomerantz added the actors' marionette-like gestures in several scenes to integrate the human and puppet interludes, making it more of a piece. The admirable set by Bill Stabile, moody lighting by Kirk Bookman, and eye-catching costumes by Alejo Vietti are pluses.

The performances alone are worth a visit. Marina Squerciati carries the play with a special charm that lights up each scene. We live through her the insults and hopes. Saundra Santiago's upper class mother is fiery and attractive as she teaches her daughter her own coping mechanisms – and is dismayed as she watches them fail. (Cristina calls them thousand-year-old recipes.) Robert Brogue holds the stage well as the handsome male chauvinist, who seems touched by his wife's breakdown although never enough to change. As the psychiatrist, Jeremy Stiles Holm is frighteningly manipulative even in the first encounter.

Some of the problems audiences and reviewers have with "Manipulation" could be resolved with program notes, about Pinochet's regime and the election of former Pres. Michelle Bachelet, about violence against women in Latin America, and the hand slap that has been meted out for wife-murder as a crime of passion. When I visited Peru last year, billboards, ads, even the sides of houses proclaimed the country's campaign against domestic abuse. The cultural context is basic to an appreciation of Victoria E. Calderon's vision.

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