Humans as the fairies of giants: magical realism comes to the Chemeketa stage
The Chemeketa Players’ fall production Giants Have Us in Their Books, which is comprised of six short plays by José Rivera, played in the Chemeketa Auditorium from Nov. 2 to Nov. 9. Due to casting problems, only five of the six were performed. As explained in the playwright’s note in the program, the plays are written as if they are the fairy tales giants tell about humans. As such, they contain elements of fairy-tale storytelling like clear morals and magical, occasionally ridiculous, events like a girl who turns into a plant and a young woman who is impregnated by an angelic birdman.
However, these plays are no children’s stories: the dialogue is gritty and full of curse words, and adult themes like white supremacy, sexual assault, suicide, puberty and teen pregnancy are addressed. This contrast emphasizes the work’s status as magical realism. In literature and drama, magical realism, which was spearheaded as a literary movement by Latin American authors, uses realistic and fantastical elements, but often does not confirm or deny whether these magical elements really exist. It lends itself well to political criticism because it allows the writer to suggest that we question reality and, by extension, the status quo.
Although written and set in the 1990s, Giants Have Us in Their Books addresses issues that are just as relevant now. The premise, while solid, would admittedly be very confusing if you were to neglect reading the program beforehand. After reading the program, it is only moderately confusing. But, for myself at least, (as is so often the case in theater), it was still an enjoyable experience once I accepted that I wasn’t going to understand everything because I hadn’t spent hours analyzing the script and don’t have an above-average mental capacity.
The racially diverse cast clearly had a wide range of experience and skill, but despite any shortcomings, their energy and joy were contagious. Deysi Rolens and Liz Santillan were excellent leading ladies, and the comic relief from Millishea Anaya, Isaiah Padilla, and Joe Maben, among others, was top-notch. The laughably low-budget effects were endearing and well executed.
As is to be expected with any compilation of short plays, some of them were better than others.
My breath was taken away by the fourth one, which tells the story of a girl who receives a gift of swastika earrings from her emotionally disturbed boyfriend as a symbol of his love. She insists that they signify nothing more than uniqueness and rebellion, but after the horrific murder of a Jewish classmate and her family, she discovers she can’t, or won’t, take them out, and sobs “This isn’t me.” A cry for help from her boyfriend, lamentation from her unsatisfied teacher, and the dronings of her father about chicken pot pies overlap in the work’s most intense and powerful scene.
The fifth and final short play was also strong. In it, a high school student comes across a dying winged man in a cave, who is the last surviving member of a race of angelic bird people and symbolizes the fading innocence of the world. She gives birth to his baby, and the production ends beautifully with a winged doll taking flight.
The plays, although depressing at times, are a testament to the beauty of the human spirit. As director Jay Gipson-King says in the conclusion of his note in the program: “Unfortunately, we must re-fight the battles we thought were put to bed ages ago. Constant vigilance is the key. And yet there is always hope. There is still theater.”