Storm Front

Time stops. It goes backward and forward. Minutes are days, and hours are years. Time is ephemeral. It lives in the distance. Time does not occupy the same space as Celestina, the mysterious heroine of José Rivera's frustratingly vague Cloud Tectonics. Now receiving an admirable production at the Culture Project, from Out of Line Productions, the play is equal parts curiously ambiguous and distractingly unclear. On a rainy night in Los Angeles, Anibal (Luis Vega) picks up Celestina (Frederique Nahmani), a pregnant hitchhiker. He brings her to his house for the night to rest. Anibal is captivated by her intoxicating beauty. They talk. They kiss. Time stops. She claims to be 54 years old. She says she has been pregnant for two years.

Then Anibal's brother Nelson (played by Julio Rivera) arrives on his doorstop after a six-year absence. Nelson falls in love with Celestina, vowing to marry her and raise her baby as his own after he returns from war.

Nelson leaves and the storm rages on. Anibal and Celestina almost make love, interrupted by Nelson's return. While only minutes have passed, Nelson is older and changed. He claims that years have passed and that no one has heard from Anibal in all that time. Is Celestina the key?

Rivera, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Motorcycle Diaries, has written a haunting and lyrically beautiful piece. He creates intriguing scenarios of confounding depth. The character of Celestina remains an enigma throughout. Is she a dream? An angel? Or something sinister? Why does time stop around her? Why does she never age? Has she been pregnant for two years?

Unfortunately, the story never evolves beyond being intriguing, settling instead for frustrating. Rivera answers none of the questions raised by Celestina's presence, leaving the audience stranded. The prevailing sense of vagueness becomes less interesting and more distracting as the show progresses, to the point where one questions whether Rivera knows what is going on.

The actors fall victim to the script's uncertainties. Despite their appealing and strong performances, they are clearly as confused by the plot's ambiguity as the audience is. Still, Nahmani is radiant as Celestina. She delivers her lines in a wonderfully naturalistic manner, as if she were speaking them for the first time. With her girlish giggle and innocent expression, she perfectly captures the character's childlike abandon. But there is a disconnect in Nahmani's performance, a sense that she can't quite wrap herself around the mystery of Celestina. Ultimately, Nahmani is as undecided about her as the playwright apparently is.

Vega encounters a similar obstacle. After an unsteady start, his portrayal of Anibal becomes skilled and thoughtful. He is particularly effective in the later scenes, decidedly settling into the role and delivering a poignant performance in the play's final moments. But with only an unclear sense of who or what Celestina is, Vega has little to react to and is left to flounder.

Both the performers and the play become grounded with the arrival of Nelson, the outsider and the play's only certainty. He is a product of the real world—the world not affected by Celestina—and his arrival portends truth. Rivera does fine work as the testosterone-fueled Army grunt. Although somewhat heavy on the machismo in his first scene, he is perfectly haunting as the disabled war veteran in the play's second half. With his wounded eyes and blank expression, Rivera fully embodies the emotional and physical trauma his character has endured. The play makes sense around Nelson—he brings the clarity of the outside world into perspective. As a result, both Vega and Nahmani relax when Rivera's Nelson arrives, knowing they can at last grab onto something tangible.

James Phillip Gates's pedestrian direction is marked by awkward staging. His clunky blocking distracts, often leaving the actors to physically strain to deliver their lines. Gates does come through in the end, however, creating a beautiful and moving tableau that brings the play's emotional thrust full circle.

Out of Line Productions has made a valiant attempt to bring Cloud Tectonics to the stage. The company's passion, particularly its fondness for the script, is clearly evident, but after nearly two hours of vague uncertainties, the play's perennial limbo renders this production irrelevant.

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