Touch Me / Rosa Rugosa
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
October 5, 2005
There are boundaries set up in life that we may explore but we are forbidden to cross, many of which are there for very good reasons. Carnal knowledge between brother and sister falls into this category, but still there is something so intriguing about pushing that boundary. The question is, once that line is crossed are we prepared to deal with the consequences?
According to the program, this is a play in two one-acts. Touch Me is set in 1969 and Rosa Rugosa is set 22 years later with several of the same characters. These folks—mom/dad, sister/brother, and granny—live in a house on the beach. Granny is forming a strange relationship with a local Native American. They hang out together on an old stone wall and talk about the wall and loneliness. Dad enjoys killing small innocent animals and Mom seems somewhat inept unless she’s gardening. The kids play like kids and poke at each other’s soft spots. Oh, and there’s a man sitting far right who strums and raps on a ukulele, occasionally singing a tune under his breath. (That was actually quite nice.)
Part Two is set at the same beach house but the story focuses on the brother and his 22-year turmoil. He harbors a certain amount of guilt regarding his sister. Mom and Dad stand far up on the beach and watch what he does. A talking rosa rugosa plant is played by two actresses sitting on the back of a couch with their limbs intertwined. A young woman named JJ has been crawling up inside the bush to escape her troubles. Eventually, she and the brother get caught up in the bush together and they find a soul-cleansing love that washes away their troubles.
Playwright Charles Cissel takes some risks in Touch Me/Rosa Rugosa and incest is only one of them. He uses beautiful, highly poetic language, parts of which soared over my head. Much of the play seems like a staged poem, and had I been reading it rather than watching it I would have had the chance to reread a stanza or two. There are three poems in the program, one of them by D.H. Lawrence, that seem to be Cissel’s jumping-off point. His play is also very symbol-heavy. There are walls on stage that represent the boundaries the characters are pushing. Some other interesting risks are the odd relationships that Cissel explores: Granny and the Indian, the talking rosa rugosa and JJ, and of course the curious siblings.
Still, I had trouble putting my finger on the overall dramatic question. I could not figure out what the characters wanted and therefore I couldn’t understand why they did what they did. The dialogue is disjointed, so there is little help there. The consequences of the brother’s actions as a kid are affecting him as an adult but I could not really grasp on to anything that he does to deal with those actions. However, I was able to latch on to Cissel’s themes of loneliness, love, and companionship.
The ensemble does a wonderful job with the language and several create some memorable characters—most notably, Jacqueline Brookes as Granny in Touch Me and Mom in Rosa Rugosa. Solomon Shiv Landerman is also noteworthy as the brooding Indian, and Tamar Pelzig is alluring and slyly sexy as the sister.
Terese Hayden’s direction is organic and always attractive. Actors are placed at all levels, drawing the eye all around the stage and creating striking tableaus. There is also a graceful flow to the action though the pace is a little slow. Christy Huertas’s light design is effective, and I liked the sound design but no credit was given.
Touch Me/Rosa Rugosa is a worthwhile theatrical experience. Not everything is a clear as it could be, but that’s the risk you take when spinning such exalted poetics.