References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot
The Empty Space Theatre, 547-7500. Through March 24.

When I walked into the Empty Space and saw the set of References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, by 1993 Obie-winner José Rivera, I had déjà vu. Most of the stage is bare; there's a backdrop of a muted beige-blue sky with pinprick stars and cacti painted on it, a light brown floor that rises in the back to represent sand, a dark brown structure that represents a fence, and--representing only itself--a wonderfully out-of-place refrigerator. All of this reminded me of the set of the l999 Northwest Asian American Theatre production of Eugenie Chan's Rancho Grande: open desert sky, stars, cacti, sand, fence.

When the characters in Salvador Dali started talking, my déjà vu got even stronger. The Moon (played by Mark Dias) sat atop the refrigerator playing a violin; in Rancho Grande, a female goddess named Moonlady presided over much of the action. Another character in Salvador Dali's first "surreal" act is Cat (Bhama Roget), a sexually ripe feline who can't decide if she wants to be domesticated ("in love with choke chains and flea collars") or partake of the lusty ravagements of leather-clad Coyote (Daniel J. Chercover). In the "realistic" acts that follow, Gabriela (Arlette del Toro) wrestles with her sexual relationship with her husband. Rancho Grande had no cats, but the female lead was a young girl pressured into having sex before she wants to or knows with whom she wants to have it. In both plays, actor Jose Abaoag plays a beautiful young boy trying to figure out how to behave as an adult. He wants to get into Gabriela's shorts. He gets a kiss that would satisfy most adolescent fantasies, but that's about it. Both plays depict non-Anglo cultures trying to survive in white America.

Both plays also blend, to varying degrees of success, realistic and fantastical storytelling. Real and surreal elements coexisted throughout Rancho Grande; Salvador Dali is divided into four acts, the middle two realistic in style, the first and last surreal. These "bookend" acts struggle to evoke impossible desire (the Moon too wants to get into Gabriela's shorts; Coyote wants to fuck the Cat, who has been fixed) and contain some lovely writing, like Gabriela's pretty address to the Moon. But they don't work as a framing device for, or an explanation of, the realistic middle acts--mostly because the "real" story doesn't work either.

In the "real" story, a military guy named Benito (Mark Dias) comes home to Barstow, California from a tour of duty. As my upset male companion observed during intermission, Benito is your basic "man-as-Neanderthal": He wants cold beer in the fridge, milk for his coffee, and a wife who will fuck him immediately. Didn't this cliché go out of style a few decades ago? Unfortunately for Benito, wife Gabriela has gone back to school during his absence and (in a consciousness-raising conversion that even an eternally hopeful old feminist like me found unbelievable) decided to be a Barbie-style military wife no longer. No more girly gossip with the other military wives; no more lessons, practiced on cucumbers, about how to give better blow jobs. This transformation seemed strident and formulaic. Maybe it could have been a hero-female revelation in the '70s; I didn't buy it as something set in the current day.

It turns out, of course, that I shouldn't have bought it. Once again, no matter how much a female like Gabriela or the fixed Cat says she doesn't want it, she really does. Though Gabriela says she won't have sex with a man whose heart she no longer knows, though she repeatedly rejects his advances, the pair eventually fall into bed. Maybe we're supposed to believe that when Benito finally confesses that his nightmares result from his having bombed a village of "ragheads" off the map, Gabriela learns he truly has a heart and can therefore consider staying with him for the next nine years of his military job.

Rancho Grande suggested that only pain would come of forcing females into having sex (or into being wives) when they don't want to. Salvador Dali, like some evil twin, implies that the battle of the sexes can be resolved between two people when one of them--the woman, obviously--forgoes her will for his. Salvador Dali's vision may look brighter, but it's not; it's just more insidious. When men write the battle's history, guess who wins.