Theater Review - Heat wave

Female leads feel temperatures rise in References and Spain

An untamed coyote seduces a domesticated housecat at the edge of the California desert. A Spanish conquistador with a blood-stained sword appears in a Washington, D.C., apartment. The moon tries to woo a soldier's wife. An abandoned wife steps through a mirror and onto the fields of Andalusia.

Two current plays, both directed by Rachel May, shed light and heat on the dream lives of lonely women. Synchronicity Performance Group (where May is artistic director and co-founder) stages Jose Rivera's References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, while Actor's Express presents Jim Knable's Spain.

Spain offers an outsider's perspective on the title country through an American woman's Hispanic obsession, while References offers more of an inside-out look at Latin culture, since Rivera and his two lead characters come from Puerto Rico. In each play, the leading lady's fantasies contrast with the lack of love in their real lives, and May makes each production fluid, humorous and sexy.

Each show has unique strengths and idiosyncratic drawbacks. While References may ultimately take its real-world themes too seriously, Spain doesn't take them quite seriously enough.

References begins with such strange events that you might wonder if you inadvertently took some mescaline before curtain. It opens on the most romantic of images, as Gabriela (Denise Arribas) lies underneath a huge projection of the moon. Before it stands James Martinez, the fabled man in the moon, who plays a violin.

In References' first portion, Gabriela awaits her husband Benito (also played by Martinez) to return from the Gulf War and fends off two unlikely suitors. Not only is her 14-year-old neighbor (Angel Villada) smitten with her, but the moon itself steps down from the sky to romance her. Gabriela's fantasy life extends to a neighborhood coyote (Jeff Feldman) who flirts with Gabriela's cat (Bobbi Lynne Scott).

Benito's arrival brings Gabriela back to earth, and despite the surreal material that bookends the show, most of the play focuses on the couple's fractious reunion and failing marriage. Martinez portrays Benito's contradictions with sensitivity. Although he has many unattractive qualities, he successfully conveys his devotion to Gabriela, who he doesn't truly understand.

Arribas tends to deliver Gabriela's already-verbose lines at too rapid a clip, and when she argues with Benito, the actress turns the role's genuine anguish into mere complaint. You feel like Gabriela's just picking a fight with Benito, and the less we like her, the less intriguing we find her inner life.

While Benito in part represents the U.S.'s dominant, destructive role in the Third World, he can't hold a candle to the literal 16th-century conquistador of Spain. The Actor's Express production is never more witty and entertaining than the opening speech by El Tigre (Steve Coulter), who says with comic understatement: "Conquering — it's a great feeling. We go places and name them."

El Tigre inexplicably appears in the apartment of Barbara (Susie Spear Purcell), an aficionado of all things Spanish who is devastated that her husband of five years has left her. One moment the Spaniard was a sacking a Mayan village, the next he's in modern America.

Knable finds humor in Barbara's mixed feelings about El Tigre's arrival, since no "dead white males" were more oppressive or politically incorrect than conquistadors. When she confronts him with his murderous treatment of whole populations, Coulter makes a dismissive "pffft" sound.

But El Tigre also feeds Barbara's darker desires as a woman spurned and awakens her duende, an untranslatable Spanish term that evokes passion, spirit and living life to the fullest. She embarks on a journey of self-discovery that takes her from a modern prison cell to a Spanish hovel, and beyond. Adam Fristoe represents the play's shifts in reality as he portrays a flamenco guitarist, a matador, Barbara's unfaithful husband and even a horse.

Knable, May and Purcell appreciate the goofiness of the situations and play them for humor. Spain's first act has the kind of quippy quality you'd find in a Meg Ryan movie, especially in Barbara's scenes with her wisecracking pal and office mate Diversion (Tosha Fowler). But Purcell proves both amusing and dashing as she strikes poses with El Tigre's swords, and in the second act she greets the increasingly weird developments with hilarious, you've-got-to-be-kidding-me reactions.

Spain's message of embracing passion and personal truth never proves very complicated, and while the play's fun to watch, it's also a bit pat.

Spain entertains in a fairly conventional way, but doesn't really add up to much. References makes a virtue of being less satisfying — its ambiguous symbolism and unresolved aspects give the work staying power. You could say Spain is akin to a tourist, and References is more like a traveler, and that would make Rachel May a canny travel agent.