The beautiful but creepy opening tableau of Cherry Lane Theatre’s production of Manipulation sets the tone for this cerebral production. A woman is lying down. A slowly spreading spotlight on her face gradually reveals several marionettes invading her space. This artistic representation of the greater metaphors of the show is a perfect example of this production’s brave interpretation of Victoria E. Calderon’s American debut. If you are looking for a high-flying (or crashing) action epic, this is not your show. Calderon and Cherry Lane bring you an aesthetically pleasing production of a complex play, making it an exciting prospect for those of you who enjoy the rare delicacies of thought-provoking theater. Set in a place designated only as “Latin America,” Manipulation does an excellent job of literally setting the stage for a story specifically not set in the United States. I am far from an expert on the “Latin American” play, a term that is complicated by the lack of discrete boundaries for Latin America. Yet there are certain aesthetic sensibilities that stand out in all of the Latin American plays that I have read, and it is of vast importance that these themes are being exposed to US audiences in such a well organized production. The most notable of these themes is the palpable violence. Both physical and emotional violence are inflicted on characters in the show, while shadowy camouflaged figures are occasionally seen around the periphery of the action.
This leads me to the overall wonderful design of the show, which does a great deal to facilitate Director Will Pomerantz’s clear stage pictures. Bill Stabile’s towering wooden structure is comprised of sticks, making it seem both permanent and permeable. With the addition of Kirk Bookman’s delicate lighting design and Jeremy Lee’s operatic sound design, the scenic elements are able to play many roles. Sometimes they are as ambiguous as the plot itself.
I can’t pretend that this is an action packed show, so if you are looking for high flying stunts, you should go elsewhere. But if you are ready to be intellectually stimulated, then this is the show for you. Calderon’s protagonist Cristina, well played by Marina Squerciati, is constantly abused by the men around her. The misogynistic power order of this world is clearly established, yet things are not so simple. Despite Cristina’s complaining about her philandering, king-like husband Mauricio (Robert Bogue), Cristina herself has affairs and is free to take extravagant trips to Paris for two months. Nothing in Manipulation is how it seems at first. In the end we must ask ourselves who is being manipulated by whom. Is Cristina the victim?
These questions are posed more often than they are answered. Adding to the mystery are a series of choreographed moments throughout the show that hearken back to the puppets who opened the show. In the midst of realistic dialogue, the highly stylized moments lead us to question what we are seeing. At one time or another each and every actor channels the marionettes. At one point Mauricio is Cristina’s puppet-master, yet again we see that things are not that cut and dry. In a scene towards the end, all of the other people in Cristina’s life are puppets, and Cristina watches them. Is this meant to suggest that everyone else is a puppet, but Cristina is separate? In this instance, Cristina is the only one who can see that she is being manipulated. Or are we to infer that Cristina is actually controlling these people who she sees to have abused her? Characters are constantly telling Cristina that she is the only one who can save herself.
The uncertainty is not disconcerting. In fact, the twists and turns keep the audience engaged, as does some of the eloquent prose. The performance that I saw was peppered with murmurs of appreciation after particularly powerful lines. Every person who goes to the theater secretly hopes for a moment of illumination in the show, a line or a moment that reveals some fundamental truth articulated in a new way. This play delivers. Indeed, this play delivers overall. Combining a solid production with the kind of play too rarely offered to US audiences, Cherry Lane Theatre’s Manipulation is a great night at the theater.