What Is Real?

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Photo credit: Miguel de Oliveira

Real

Written by Rodrigo Nogueira

Directed by Erin Ortman

Presented at The Tank, NYC

January 3-20, 2019

Real, by New York City-based Brazilian writer and director Rodrigo Nogueira, begins by immediately throwing its own title into question, or, rather, by introducing the questions to which its title points. Dominique (Rebecca Gibel) falters as, standing in a spotlight, she delivers an impassioned, poetic monologue, and must step aside to consult a written copy. This moment, which draws attention to the interlacing of artifice and reality unfolding before the audience in this (or any) theatrical experience, is followed, after a wordless interlude set to a fugue, by a comment from Dominique's best friend (Gabriela Garcia) that also asks to be taken as metatheatrical, emphasizing, in connection with the fugue, the layered, musical manner in which Real approaches its concerns.

Nogueira's play is filled with unsteady dualities, a litany of repetition with a difference and of disintegrating boundaries. Dominique, we learn, is an award-winning lawyer whose husband (Charlie Pollock) "saved" her from a potential life as a classical musician. She has been inspired to begin playing again by an "old play" concerning Dominic (Darwin del Fabro), a young, queer Latinx composer whose father (Charlie Pollock) considers him diseased and who is living in New York City during the mass deportation in the early 1930s of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans—as Dominique puts it, anyone who looks Mexican. Dominic's life in this play-within-a-play, which is just as real to the audience as Dominique's, intersects in increasingly "real" ways with Dominique's world. The characters in both halves of the narrative echo one another, sometimes in the dialogue itself and helped by the doubling by the actors in parts other than those of the two protagonists, and the more sympathetic among them demonstrate a duality or multiplicity within themselves. Dominic's professor (Keith Reddin) from the conservatory, for instance, calls himself a man both of science and of the arts, and the maid (Gabriela Garcia) who cleans the conservatory was also a doctor before coming to America for a better life for her child; further, she is knowledgeable about music, which, significantly, allows her to understand Dominic's fugue.

The Professor defines a fugue as "two different voices built on the same subject" that sound and feel alike while remaining distinct and meeting in "the end of the piece." Real employs the formal, bounded structure of the fugue to think about perception and ambiguity. The husband of Dominique's best friend (Keith Reddin) argues, the notes in the two voices of a fugue eventually become so intertwined that it becomes impossible to distinguish between the original and the imitation, between which is real and which is not; thus, one thing can be two things simultaneously at the same time, not only in music but in the "real" more broadly, in the self, in culture, and in history. Attitudes towards LGBTQIA and Latinx communities, for example, can both have improved in Dominique's time (our present) compared to Dominic's and yet evince a troubling continuity, just as Dominque and Dominic can both be at once themselves and not themselves, and "themselves" itself can simultaneously hold multiple definitions.

While the themes may embrace ambiguity, the performances are sharply drawn. Reddin projects low-key intelligence and humor in both of his roles, much as Pollock does confident close-mindedness in his. Garcia strikes a complicated balance in the reflection of her forthright, upstanding maid in the best friend whose composed cattiness wraps itself around a lovelorn loneliness, and vice versa; and Gibel and del Fabro skillfully embody the mix of confusion, pain, self-(re)discovery, and empowerment that marks the arcs of Dominique and Dominic as they bend towards convergence. The impact of these performances is supported by staging choices such as slowly stripping away the furniture from the set in a way that mirrors the protagonists' experiences of their selves and/in their realities.

Real is dense with symbolism and layering but doesn't belabor its meditations on the stories --  artistic, national, and personal, necessarily real and unreal at the same time -- that shape our lived realities. As the Professor notes, any color appears differently relative to what other color you put next to it. Dominique describes the fugue, which she says became Dominic's life, but which is also Real itself, as beautiful but sad, and who are we to disagree? - Leah Richards & John Ziegler

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