Suicide! Euthanasia! Incest! Health Care! Racism! Old age! Corporate America! Spirits! The afterlife! Prison! Duplicity! Playwright Josefina López (Real Women Have Curves) is tackling so many issues in her new play A Cat Named Mercy that it suffocates what could have been a most compelling story.
As if living with her death-wishing, diabetic, blind mother isn’t traumatic enough, vocational nurse Catalina Rodriguez has just learned of her cancerous uterine tumor which requires immediate removal. Minutes before this discovery, Catalina’s hours have been scaled back at Elysian Estates Nursing Home, effectively shutting off her health insurance. What’s a stressed out 27-year-old virgin to do? Encouraged by cash offers from despondent residents who are ready to check out (permanently), Catalina starts offing them using a simple injection. Strangely enough, a stray cat—previously named Mercy by the Latina euthanasist—just happens to appear at each senior citizen’s deathbed.
There certainly are some great twists, but this obvious, slanted, silly, heavy-handed, well-intentioned, and often nonsensical Lifetime Channel-esque play stubbornly refuses to be anything but a health education pamphlet disguised as a telenovela. Equally dogged is the plodding direction of Hector Rodriguez, who has decided the script is far too serious for nuance and levity; his actors are often as oppressive as the material. As if the two-and-a-half hours don’t beat us over the head with life’s inequities, Rodriguez lets designer Bill Reyes use the exact same syrupy synthesizer music between the many scene changes.
And then there’s the cat. Dressed in black like a Jules Feiffer dancer, Beatriz Eugenia Vasquez slinks about the stage with her hand up the rear of a white cat puppet, which inadvertently creates a flying feline that makes soft landings. Adding to the jolting device is that poor Ms. Vasquez is relegated to saying “Me-oooow, Me-oooow” while a very loud purring comes through the speakers.
Stacked against the odds of Rodriguez’ exacting direction, and López’ many one-dimensional two-faced characters who immediately and unbelievably switch from saint to villain, or vice versa, the actors—14 who play 33 roles—are left to their own devices. Hence, the acting runs the gamut from flat to engaging and everything in between, a ubiquitous occurrence in L.A. theaters. It is a relief when Alex Ximenez, valiant but unarresting as Catalina, and Alex Denney, sweet but superficial as Brad—a nursing home resident’s grandson—have their first date: The fake alcohol seems to loosen them up, and it is the most authentic scene of the night. That is until Catalina begins spouting obscenities as if she has acquired Tourette’s syndrome along with the cancer.
Blanca Araceli does a yeoman’s task as Mama Rodriguez, screaming for her chorizo, falling to the floor, getting mugged, panhandling, and stepping in front of a car. The character is also in denial about her now-deceased husband’s incestuous affair with their daughter Marga and Marga’s suicide. It’s simply too much for any actress, and the clearly talented Araceli comes off as desperately overwrought. There’s a generous dose of sincerity from Susan Davis as a geriatric racist, and Michael Cota as a 911 dispatcher who falls for Catalina sight unseen—and even asininely continues his telephonic love affair after she’s put in the pen (it’s a role easily excisable). As Catalina’s boss Joy, Minerva Vier often glances around before a line, as if she’s trying to find her motivation flying around with the cat.
The idea of Theatre of Identity, aka Social Issues Theatre, is to promote a particular cultural concern—in this case, health care and euthanasia. Plays such as A Cat Named Mercy are clearly written to shed light on minority issues which were previously given short shrift in the theater. The problem is that storytelling is sacrificed for sentimentality and educational preaching. This unrelenting script could blossom into something special if the playwright simplified the story and created multi-dimensional characters. As it stands, this offering shows the audience no mercy.
photos by Ed Krieger
A Cat Named Mercy
asa 0101 Theater
2101 East First Street in Boyle Heights
scheduled to end on February 23, 2014
for tickets, call 323.263.7684 or visit www.Casa0101.org