The Cherry Lane Theatre always offers exciting new plays and Basilica, written by Mando Rivera, is no exception. There’s plenty to note about this production, particularly its outstanding Latino cast. It’s comforting to see that there are strong roles out there for Latino actors, as well as opportunities for writers to explore a growing Hispanic-American experience.
In fact, at its start, the events surrounding the Garza family sound like those in any typical family drama by <insert famous American playwright here.> High school senior Ray (Jake Cannavale, though played by understudy Oscar Cabrera at our show) aims for more than his small-town life in San Juan, Texas can afford. He subverts his father’s expectations when he gets accepted and decides to enroll in a liberal arts school in Chicago, escaping a seeming cycle of alcoholism, depression, and low ambition exhibited by his father Joe (expertly played by Felix Solis) and drinking buddy Cesar (a natural Bernardo Cubría).
Things get complicated when a new priest arrives at the basilica (kind of like a super-church) who has a hidden past involving Ray’s mother Lela (Leyva). You don’t really need to be accomplished theater critics like ourselves to figure out what’s going on and its implications.
What does set this family apart from other conventional theater families is their incredible dependence on religion. Each family member has their own unique relationship to Catholicism– whether its Lela’s devotional self-sacrifice and passivity to God’s will, Father Gil’s resentful and guilt-induced holiness, or Joe’s unwilling awe– a strange Trinity of sorts. The Garza children are still experimenting with religion. Ray borders on indifferent while sister Jessica is seen trying her hand at voodoo, Islam, and Buddhism.
Structurally, Act 1 is solid. It exposes conflicts and character dynamics in a way that sympathizes with but also distances us from their actions. The writing is funny, light, but also tightly structured. In the second act, however, things begin to unravel with a TOTALLY unexpected plot twist that feels terribly unnecessary. In fact, I feel like I speak for the audience when I say that we actually felt much more interested in the plot’s resolution had said plot twist been absent. Also, sister Jessica’s weird fascination with a missing imaginary friend and experimental religious practices is never fully explained or resolved and leaves a bit of a hole in our understanding of the play’s relationship to religion.
Basilica really excels in its technical aspects. Set Design adds quite some layer to the family dynamics. A bar, the basilica, and the Garza foyer functionally meld into one set. At their crossing, a gaping cross looms over the stage which, when lit, is quite imposing. Sound design also proves essential to setting the tone for this family tragi-comedy. I’d probably grab a track or two if ’twere downloadable.
All of the adult actors give vivid performances. While I want to single out Felix Solis and Selenis Leyva for their genuine, dynamic performances, I’d feel remiss in not mentioning Bernardo Cubría and Rosal Colón for their supporting roles as goofy Cesar and embittered Lou. Oscar Cabrera also gave a star turn in his performance. Norma and I caught glimpses of Oscar’s rehearsals before the performance (his first in the role), which made us all the more excited to see him perform.
Basilica plays through June 22nd.