As a theater critic in Albuquerque, I've got plenty of blessings to count, and the number keeps rising every month. For some reason, new theaters have been popping up all over town recently. One of the newest is a hip space at 712 Central SE operated by SolArts, a local nonprofit visual and performing arts organization.
The large SolArts lobby doubles as a contemporary art gallery. There's also space for classes and workshops. In the near future, the operators hope to open a quirky theater thrift store to hawk used pieces of theatrical paraphernalia.
As far as the SolArts theater itself, I have two words for you: comfy chairs. Those luxurious padded purple chairs at the Downtown Century 14 movie theater, just a few blocks away, might be prettier to look at, but they've got nothing on the SolArts seats in terms of sheer butt-pampering comfort. If you spend as much time in local theaters as I do, you'll share my enthusiasm. If not, you'll just have to take my word for it. My bum was happy.
The SolArts performance space is large and flexible, a proud addition to our city's growing roster of fine theaters. I sincerely hope it becomes a permanent fixture on Albuquerque's arts scene for years to come.
The theater's current production is a play called Blue Surge, written by Rebecca Gilman and directed by Brandon Scott Jensen. You should know that this production includes lots of nudity, adult themes, cussing and other elements that make the show unsuitable for kids.
The story opens with two police detectives, Curt (Edward B. Dean) and Doug (Patrick McElwee), making a bungling attempt to infiltrate a massage parlor that's actually a whore house. During the course of a failed sting, Curt develops a paternal friendship with a hooker named Sandy (Dixie Mayfield), while Doug gets a romance cooking with another hooker named Heather (Tristana Gonzalez).
The play focuses primarily on the evolving bond between Curt and Sandy. In a moment of crisis, the down-home hooker briefly moves in with the frumpy, self-pitying cop, but any potential for romance is quickly quashed by the fact that Curt already has a girlfriend, an over-privileged trustfund artist named Beth (Brandy Slagle). Throughout the course of the play, though, Curt continues to take a personal interest in Sandy's welfare, struggling to find ways to help her exit her lucrative but humiliating career.
From my perspective, there were a lot of problems with this production. Much of the acting was kind of flat. The lengthy set changes between scenes were also a bit clunky and awkward.
To be fair, the director warned me before the show that the press preview I attended wasn't quite ready to rock. He said the sets weren't completely finished. He also seemed a bit nervous about the performance itself—but maybe I'm just projecting.
That said, my biggest problem with this show is Gilman's play itself. Blue Surge makes a clumsy stab at social realism that never quite hits the mark. Characters ramble out long monologues about how much it sucks to be poor, but, for me at least, it's difficult to feel much sympathy for them.
This is mainly because Gilman doesn't dig very deeply into her characters' personalities or concerns. Her heart is in the right place, but she doesn't offer much in the way of innovative drama. Most people already know that being rich is much better than being poor. They already know that many prostitutes were abused when they were young. They also know that working your way up the social ladder in the United States isn't as easy as King George W. and his sinister army of Republiclones keeps telling us it is.
Reminding us of these obvious truths isn't enough to make for a decent play, especially when Gilman's didactic message is propped up on a rickety foundation of clichéd dialogue and shallow, off-the-rack characters.
It's fine for social issues to be incorporated into a play, but it should be done in a way that's insightful, creative and surprising. Otherwise, we might as well just occupy our time by reading back issues of The Nation. Gilman obviously has plenty of good intentions, but her play doesn't use the tools of drama to explore the issues she's concerned with in any substantial way.
SolArts is a great little facility. Although this current show is a bit of a disappointment, I'm sure the theater's future contributions to Albuquerque's burgeoning scene will be well worth monitoring.