BWW Review: SWIMMING WHILE DROWNING Rises Above the Surface at Cara Mía Theatre
Frankly, the statistics are astounding, yet most people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are unaware of these numbers, or-if they are aware of them-the numbers are so overwhelming as to be unbelievable. In the past five years, more transgender people have been killed in Texas than in any other state, and roughly half of those murders took place in Dallas. Then there are those still living who are often treated as though they might as well be dead. Forty percent of homeless youths across the country, including Dallas, identify as being LGBT, many having been kicked out of their homes for their sexual orientation. And while there are shelters in the metropolitan area designed to help these young communities, such spaces are limited and can only do so much to fight the systemic problems that have created these issues in the first place.
Creating a work of art that engages many of these issues is a difficult task, and even then such works tend to be written off as preachy or overly didactic rather than sincere representations of real life. Yet Emilio Rodríguez's recent play SWIMMING WHILE DROWNING, currently receiving its Dallas premiere with Cara Mía Theatre, manages to share the trials and tribulations of two queer homeless youths in a manner so inventive, tender, and authentic that moralizing hardly seems necessary. The play runs through December 15 at the Latino Cultural Center.
Two characters on a relatively bare stage drive Rodríguez's play forward more than a traditional plot. SWIMMING WHILE DROWNING relates the experiences of Mila and Angelo, two youths identifying as gay who share a room at an LGBT homeless shelter, through a series of distinct yet intricately connected vignettes. The two roommates struggle to reconcile their divergent personalities, share their thoughts on how art and music should be created, keep damning secrets from one another, and ultimately find a kind of refuge in each other's presence. The 90-minute play runs without an intermission, allowing the audience to maintain their own connections to these characters without interruption.
If I understand correctly, this is only the sixth time SWIMMING WHILE DROWNING has been performed, and so New York director Jorge Merced wanted to experiment with the material in such a way to challenge the audience's own perceptions of gender, sexuality, and teen experiences of love and loss. For this production, Merced made the artistic decision to represent one of the characters as a gender non-conforming youth. The choice is paradoxically noticeable yet completely negligible. Initially, such an artistic decision forces viewers to question the very idea of labels such as "gay," "straight," "masculine," "feminine." Yet, as the play progresses, the gender expression of these characters is revealed to be just one aspect of what is an incredibly complex personality; how these characters appear to us and to one another begin to feel less important than how they appear to themselves-and how those appearances change.
The two-person cast makes for a more intimate piece, and both actors excel at keeping engaged with one another, propelling the action forward while knowing when to let certain haunting moments linger, a testament to their acting as well as Merced's direction. Initially, though only momentarily, Milo and Angelo feel like stereotypical archetypes: the sensitive and naïve poet forced together with the tough yet mysteriously guarded kid of the streets. Yet Rodríguez's script quickly undermines these characterizations, and both actors go a long way toward complicating any preconceived notions audiences may develop in the play's opening scene.
As Angelo, Dominic Pecikonis creates interesting and striking ways to mask his character's vulnerabilities, even as those vulnerabilities become more exposed as the play progresses. Throughout the play, Angelo acts as a kind of narrator, though this designation does not do the part justice. In between scenes, Pecikonis delivers Angelo's monologues as though competing in a slam poetry competition, rhythmically sharing his innermost thoughts and desires while maintaining the confidence necessary for addressing a large crowd. Pecikonis is lucky to have some of the play's most poetic lines, and-if the script occasionally lapses into cliché-the audience is soon soothed with a turn of phrase so jarringly profound that they are quickly assumed again into the actor's performance. Pecikonis also manages to make Angelo smart and sassy in an authentic manner, in a way that shows this affectation to be a kind of defense mechanism rather than a trait that panders to the most basic stereotypes of gay men. Pecikonis's Angelo is always a work in progress, but person who recognizes that progress is better than wherever he was before.
J Davis-Jones bursts on the stage as Mila, storming through the doorway, throwing objects around the room, and tackling Angelo like a modern-day Stanley Kowalski. The moment establishes Mila as a force to be reckoned with, a dangerous presence that threatens to crush Angelo's typically optimistic innocence. What Davis-Jones does so well in these opening moments, though, is engage in these actions with a palpable fear behind their eyes, as though Mila feels as much threatened by Angelo as the other way around. This fear and uncertainty grow as the play progresses and as Mila becomes more open with Angelo, and Davis-Jones has an expert's instinct as to when to allow their character's vulnerabilities to break through before being forcibly smothered again. Some of their more profound moments, though, come when Mila is delivering a private freestyle rap about their desire and struggle to break free as well as when they allow themselves to be cared for by Angelo after a particularly violent evening. Davis-Jones builds toward this moment of unexpected yet touching tenderness with deliberate care, charting their character's growth in a way that is both natural and surprising.
The third character onstage, so to speak, could be said to be Tara Houston's impressive scenic design. Almost all the action of the play takes place in a bedroom at the homeless shelter, and Houston creates a room that is warm in its Light Brown and red tones yet openly hostile to its occupants. The shelter's rules remain a constant physical presence hovering over the teens' heads, and the phrase "you are a guest here" reminds Angelo and Mila that they could be back out on the street without any warning. I was originally confused by the decision not to put any beds in the space; after all, these characters are meant to sleep here. But this lack of even the most basic amenity serves as another reminder of the space's inability to act as a home for these characters. They quite literally do not have a place to put their heads down, though both make do with what they're given, finding a moment of emotional intimacy in a place where such connections are strictly discouraged. Speaking of intimacies both emotional and physical, Jeff Colangelo deserves special recognition for his fight choreography since it is one of the most thrilling and convincing displays of stage combat I've seen in a long time.
To be sure, SWIMMING WHILE DROWNING is not a perfect play, though perhaps it is not meant to be. No show can solve all the LGBTQ community's problems, and perhaps it is appropriate that-like life-the play ends with a number of loose threads and unanswered questions. Still and all, Cara Mía has produced an emotionally moving and immensely satisfying work of art that will continue to foster conversations within the Dallas community long after the final bows.