MAN CAVEWritten by John J. Caswell, Jr.
Kitchen Dog Theater
Director: Christie Velaᵒ^
Stage Manager/ Assistant Director: Katie Ibrahim
Scenic Designer: Jeffrey Schmidt
Props Designer: Zareen Afzaal
Lighting Designer: Aaron Johansenᵒ
Costume & Makeup F/X Design: Isa Flores
Sound Designer: Brian McDonald
Video Projections Designer: Phillip Vilar
Technical Director: Jeremy Escobarᵒ
Covid Safety Manager: Ellen Osburn
Spanish Language Translations: Yoland Castro
Projection Assistant: Viviana Servin
Carpenter: James Stromanᵒ
Electrician: Troy Carrico
Box Office Manager: Claire Carsonᵒ
Graphic Design: SullivanPerkins
ᵒMember, KDT Artistic Company
^Member of Stage Directors & Choreographers Society
Imaculada: Gigi Cervantes*
Rosemary: Fatima Y. Flores
Lupita: Gloria Vivica Benavides*
Consuelo: Sheila D. Rose
*Member, Actors Equity Association
Reviewed Performance: 2/17/2023
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The set design is impressive from the beginning, and its genius at facilitating the superb special effects is revealed as this drama accelerates. The titular “man cave” is (at least literally) a basement in the wealthy abode of an Arizona Congressman. An HDTV adorns the wall in back of a wet bar. A cowhide rug takes center stage, under a round coffee table. The stuffed head of an 8-point buck stares back at us—no worries for animal lovers, as it may get its revenge. And of course, no man cave would be complete without a sectional leather sofa.
The props are fun. Downstage center sports a jumble of clothes erupting out of charity boxes. Heavy-cut whiskey glasses and a square decanter adorn the bar. A shiny ram skull has a prominent spot on top of the round coffee table.
For all of the copious masculinity enveloping the furnishings, two expensive front-load washer-dryer appliances take stage right. The wall at stage left sports two frosted high-placed, horizontal windows with silhouetted plants telegraphing the room’s subterranean location.
These windows are important, as they work with the ingenuous light and sound design to bring an intermittently raging storm into the theater. Flashing lightning, roaring thunder, and ever more sinister sensory events envelop the audience. The light and sound effects are perfectly employed in revealing, among many other things, the approach of vehicles on the gated property. As the action unfolds, the sophisticated lighting, sound, and video projections encase the audience in mounting scary chills.
As the play opens, the HDTV tells us it is Friday night, 10:17 to be exact. The rumbling thunder and pattering rain, combined with the artfully dim man cave illumination, present a spooky feel. Car headlights through the two windows, combined with the sounds of a horn, bell, and yippy dog (“Brandon”), let us know that guests have arrived. Whether and how these guests are welcome remains to be seen.
As the housekeeper Imaculada, Gigi Cervantes engages our sympathies and draws us into her character’s mindset by stealthy increments. Before the audience knows it, we are completely on Imaculada’s side. She is trying to do the laundry when her erstwhile close friend Lupita (Gloria Vivica Benavides) makes an unabashed arrival. Lupita has brought mutual friend Rosemary (Fatima Y. Flores), who sports a black eye and seems to be riding an adrenaline high.
The relationship among the four characters is revealed to the audience incrementally. In the beginning, Imaculada tells Lupita she refuses to give money, a vow she cannot keep. Cryptic references are made to Imaculada’s appearance. The friends became estranged once Imaculada became the live-in employee of the far-right Congressman from Arizona. “He is serving the will of his constituents,” is one of many rationalizations Imaculada doles out during the course of this interesting, thought-provoking play.
The action’s initial tension has two primary sources. Imaculada is worried that housing her friends, even during her employers’ weekend absence, could threaten her job. This concern is overshadowed by the sight of Rosemary’s black eye and Lupita’s explanation that the perpetrator is a cop with connections at both the ER and ICE. They have nowhere else to hide.
As Imaculada accepts that she must offer her friends a place to sleep, the supernatural horror elements make themselves known. Imaculada tries to convince her friends that the scary noises are caused by a foundation problem and that the flickering electricity is caused by wire-chomping rodents. Cervantes is the rare actress who can pull off a character’s deliberate lies and still make that character likable. Imaculada’s evolution is also a prime strength of the play.
The play has three unseen villains: the Congressman, his wife, and the woman-beating cop from whom Rosemary is making a run. Rosemary is in a love triangle with Lupita and the coked-up domestic abuser police officer she lives with. Imaculada’s discomfort (“none of this lesbian s____”) becomes more of a running joke, with hilarious hand gestures.
Congressman Jeff Petersen and his wife Wendy have a lot of money. Nearly brand-new clothes fall out of the charity boxes because the missus only wears an outfit once. Lupita marvels that the house has six ovens, three refrigerators, and a tiny elevator (i.e., the dumbwaiter, which comes to sport gorgeous hellish light effects). Imaculada’s Tesla is so elite that its paint is not a color as common as black: “it’s obsidian,” she corrects her friends.
If only the Congressman’s largesse stopped at transportation. The Petersens can afford to remodel their live-in employee’s corporeal self. Specifically, Jeff and Wendy engineered the removal of an entire part of Imaculada’s digestive system, causing her to lose one hundred and sixteen pounds. As a result, Imaculada doubles over in pain throughout the play. It is open to interpretation whether she suffers from botched surgery, a common side effect, or spiritual agony. Kudos to the playwright for raising the question of coercion associated with this operation (a timely issue considering the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends gastric bypass for 13-year-olds and fat-shaming, er “treatment,” for chubby toddlers). Cervantes does a great job with Imaculada’s self-deceptions, as she tries to justify her employment-imposed transformations. She initially says that she wanted the surgery to walk upstairs, but ultimately admits that the Congressman desires a presentable servant for his house-bound fundraising events (and more), that Wendy habitually gave her too-small clothes, and that they want to use her on the campaign trail as the token photogenic Latina nanny.
The complications from Imaculada’s surgery are literally hellish. After Rosemary declares the fatal scope of her revenge fantasy, the stuffed buck’s head shakes and leaps off the wall. The special effects are fun and amazing. The hunting trophy covered a hole in the wall, which reveals that the house was built on top of a mass grave. Since her surgery, when Imaculada returned to the house in a weakened state, she has been possessed by an evil spirit. She has been uncovering the bones in involuntary nocturnal wanderings.
Flores does the heavy lifting as a character (Rosemary) who is all over the map. Rosemary had been in a lesbian relationship but also cohabitates with a criminally abusive man. Rosemary explains her motivation as a need for stability, although they never married. Along the way, he threatens to have her mother, Consuelo (Sheila D. Rose) deported. Rosemary reveals her own self-deception, as she struggles to justify her decisions to Lupita. But he was evil from the beginning, Lupita explains with some conviction. He sold her Honda, so “transportation is a delicate subject.”
As the play progresses, Rosemary robustly curses her abuser for all eternity. Rosemary fled with goat blood and the cop’s dirty fingernail clippings, for the purpose of hexing him through a new shamanic method of paranormal transubstantiation. In clever scripting that foretells one theme, Rosemary speaks to the spiritual universe, musing about whether she should start with a land acknowledgment, or is that really condescending? She is torn between appropriate deference versus virtue signaling.
As Rosemary’s mother Consuelo, the eminently watchable Sheila D. Rose exudes maternal dignity and gravitas. Consuelo finally gets Imaculada to admit the truth behind her 27-year-old son Fernando’s move out of town. Consuelo is gorgeous in a tan wrap with bright orange trim and tassels. The costumes are well-designed for a production that has the characters embellish some of their street clothes with glam picks from the “charity boxes.”
There are occasional, strangely hostile comments to Imaculada because she is wearing a dress, which she finally identifies with measured exacerbation as “a maxi dress from Target.” This is an example of the play’s methodology, whereby the audience is left to draw our own conclusions. We figure out that Imaculada’s dress is relevant because, by switching jobs, she is no longer forced into a cleaner’s uniform.
Benavides is poignant and funny as the struggling Lupita, who is lovesick for Rosemary. Unable to make the co-pay necessary to treat her anxiety, Lupita falls hard off the wagon before our eyes. Lupita is tragically “sick and broke,” but Benavides transitions well to a side-cracking drunk.
There is a poltergeist element, but the intent of the spirits here is unclear. Tragedy produces explosions of energy is one explanation. The women bring in a scarecrow assembled from one of the Congressman’s suits, but is he the real target? As it turns out, fulfilling a lethal revenge fantasy via how-to steps from a website is not that easy. Consuelo abandons her apostasy to assist Rosemary with her shaman ceremony. The production sports a number of horror-motif treats: possessed women speaking in dialect, the specter of altered realities, crawling beetles and melting walls (thanks to artful video projections), scary sounds and lighting, and what will those zombies do with those knives?
Thematically this play can be seen through the lens of identity: identity lost, assumed, purloined, usurped, sought, and possibly found. Once the hexing is over, the four women speak in Spanish, with only a fraction of the lines translated into English on the HDTV. The audience can see that the ceremony, the effects of which are otherwise up for debate, has placed them closer to their identity, as they are speaking their first language. Another point may be to illustrate what can be gleaned from only an incomplete translation. Another may be to place the non-bilingual audience in a place of understanding.
Enjoying horror live is extra thrilling. As the director Christie Vela has explained, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was the mother of the horror genre. Vela triumphs again with this attention-grabbing and thematically relevant production. I highly recommend this all-around stellar live theater thrill.
Through March 5, 2023
The Trinity River Arts Center
2600 N. Stemmons Freeway, Suite 180 Dallas, TX 75207
For information and Tickets call (214) 953-1055 or go https://www.kitchendogtheater.org/man-cave
Live streaming is available during the final week of performances: March 2 -5.