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Timing Is Everything

There's only one genuinely dramatic moment in Cloud Tectonics, but, boy, is it a doozy. A man leaves a room and enters it moments later. His clothes are different. He's carrying letters written while he was away. To him, two years have unfolded in the interim. To the characters on stage -- and to those of us watching -- time has hardly passed at all.

Surreal? In a manner of speaking. Fascinating? Absolutely. Jose Rivera's image-laden and haunting play, on stage at New Theatre in Coral Gables, lasts about 90 minutes. But in some parts of it, time stands still.

At least that's what Celestina del Sol would have us think. She's the seemingly daft and obviously pregnant young woman whom Anibal de la Luna picks up on the side of the road. During their time together -- 90 minutes, two years, the blink of an eye, who can say? -- Anibal and Celestina change each other, and they change the notion of time. Hell, they even change those of us who can't possibly enter their world.

What a world it is. Anibal (whose last name means, "of the moon"), an airport baggage-handler, picks up Celestina (her last name means "of the sun") on a Los Angeles freeway during a torrential downpour he refers to as "the storm of the century." He takes her back to his apartment in Echo Park, a place that seems to have always been underwater.

Light-brown drop cloths flow over his bed, his table and chairs, and the floor, as though a river of water has passed through. The effect is both celestial and gritty, low-budget and highly imaginative. Outside sounds -- sirens, rain, thunder -- only insulate the coziness.

What is this place? At the New Theatre, scenic designer Guillermo Mediavilla has built a cavelike atmosphere, at once fertile and warm. Despite the suggestion of clouds, there's no natural light. The room might be situated under a log or perhaps in a drab apartment complex. It's a place where Celestina's evocative questions -- Is time blue? Where is time? Is the organ of time the heart? -- seem like natural topics of conversation.

Anibal and Celestina discuss love and then they fall in love -- sorta. It might be more accurate to say they discuss time and then fall through it. They don't travel through time, exactly. Rather, they show us and each other that the definition of time is subjective. Celestina, for example, insists she has no conception of hours, weeks, years. Meanwhile, Anibal notices his watch has stopped.

The story -- well, the story isn't really the point. Cloud Tectonics operates on smaller moments and moods. In a Twilight Zone kind of way, it's difficult to pin down exactly what happens. Anibal thinks he picked up a young pregnant woman. She may be nuts. She talks about living in one room in her parents' house. Anibal wants to know how long she's been pregnant. "I'm not really sure," she says. Later she tells him she is at least 50. In the universe of the play, this condition seems possible.

If Anibal is quietly captivated by Celestina, his brother Nelson is actively under her spell. Arriving unexpectedly on a two-day leave from his army duty soon after Celestina arrives, Nelson almost immediately tells Celestina that he wants to marry her and take care of her child. "I love children," he says to his incredulous brother. ("I'm going to vomit," responds Anibal.) In the meantime, though, he must travel to Death Valley and finish his enlistment duty.

While Nelson is gone, Anibal talks about his past and current loves. He sketches out the theme of the play: the idea that love changes people. Recalling his first sexual experience, Anibal says, "The space around my body was permanently curved." He speculates that love can change "the speed of light... and how you experience time."

Presented by a less deft writer, this notion might come off as trite. But here characters and their perceptions of time intersect with each other in ways that mine new veins of old emotional truths. "I never stopped thinking about you," Celestina says to Anibal when they are reunited by accident 40 years after their initial meeting. In this case we recognize the idea that, in a sense, it's possible to freeze time, even if only in memory.

Throughout much of Cloud Tectonics, characters give information in large sweeps of exposition. What keeps the play from being bogged down by flashbacks is Rivera's writing. It's so poetic that, at times, you may wonder why he chose to dramatize his ideas at all. The play's title, with its imaginative oxymoron, suggests the writerly gymnastics that Rivera is putting on stage: Trying to understand a woman like Celestina, Anibal insists, is as crazy as trying to understand cloud tectonics -- the (nonexistent) science of building clouds.

Cloud Tectonics premiered in 1995 at the Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville. It's been produced in La Jolla and at Playwrights Horizons in New York, and it opened here earlier this month as part of the International Hispanic Theatre Festival. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a more provocative setting than Miami-Dade, where Rivera's NuYorican flavors both confront and embrace our expectations about Spanish speakers -- and speaking Spanish.

The play works on Anibal as it works on us. While Celestina is a transforming spirit (and Nelson is a plot device), Anibal is the character we identify with. Raised in a Puerto Rican family, he might be called a nonpracticing Hispanic. And yet the emotional turning point of the play arrives when Anibal listens to Celestina speak to him in Spanish. Later he recalls her speech's power as "the language my parents spoke the night of my conception." Those of us who hear Spanish daily in our homes or in the street will hear something utterly fresh in Anibal's discovery of its power. Those who don't live in a bilingual world may glimpse what they are missing.

Directed by New Theatre artistic director Rafael de Acha, this production hinges not only on its powerful prevailing mood but also on a number of exquisitely tender moments, most of them deftly acted. As Anibal, Carlos Orizondo gives the most consistently strong performance. Israel Garcia's Nelson, however, is barely two-dimensional, and this detracts from the production. As Garcia trips over the street dialect of his character, his performance often feels forced and shallow.

As Celestina, Tanya Bravo has the most difficult role. Celestina's essence is ambiguous. Is she crazy? Is she simple-minded? Is she even human? Bravo does an admirable job of bridging a number of realities.

So does the play itself. Its final and most tender moments underscore the trick of imagination that Rivera pulls off in a play about characters who happen to live in two cultures. Without giving away anything, I'll reveal that this moment involves a curtain speech, in which Anibal repeats and Celestina translates into English a series of thoughts she had earlier told him in Spanish. The two actors speak in succession. They say the same thing, and yet they don't. Rivera understands that sometimes it takes two languages to tell one story.

Cloud Tectonics.
Written by Jose Rivera. Directed by Rafael de Acha. Starring Tanya Bravo, Israel Garcia, and Carlos Orizondo. Through June 28. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables, 305-443-5909.

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