“Archipelago”: Semele’s Disturbing Dream of Love

“Happily ever after.”

We imagine love, once found, as a continuing, day-to-day process that either lasts or doesn’t.  Playwright Caridad Svich offers a radically different image:  a string of islands.

In Archipelago, receiving a masterful US premiere at Son of Semele, we follow  two unidentified characters through a series of intense, unplanned meetings.  Their paths collide in unnamed places, mostly urban, at long intervals.

Michael Evans Lopez, Sarah Rosenberg (photo: Mainak Dhar)

Each meeting, by itself, would be a memorable affair.  But taking them together — as this couple must do — raises pesky questions. Will the relationship continue?  Will it deepen?  What do they want of one another?  Does either owe something to the other?

Such questions arise in every love.  But by casting her characters adrift on a sea of chance, Svich deprives them of a past — the slow accumulation of memories, moments, and secrets that a couple creates, like a nautilus surrounding itself with a shell.

Every time these two meet, they are caught in the fleeting present, and pressed by the swiftly arriving future; they don’t get the comfort of imagining they know each other, or their relationship, very well. They reach for scraps of memory, glad even to renew an old debate; but it’s not enough to let them feel secure together.

Surrounding these anxious, amorous islands in time are all the turmoil and terrors of our age.  The lovers fight to communicate amid the roar and bustle of a metropolis, or crawl into a cave to escape the bombing of an impoverished city.  Centuries removed from Romeo and Juliet, they do not know whether their love can claim a right to exist.

It would be wrong to call Archipelago an affirmation.   Love, in this  too-familiar world, does not conquer all; it may not survive, or even really begin.  We can seek it, think we’ve found it, take terrible risks to hold onto it … but we only have the power walk away and fail. Succeeding, or even getting a second chance, is not really up to us.

At the same time, however, Archipelago is no suicide note.  It is, as its author insists, a love story.  It has no happy ending; no ending at all, in fact. Yet at the end we, who’ve seen the horrors of the last century and now face the terrors of this one, remain hopeful that love is at least possible — or worth trying for.

Svich, who adapted the “magical realism” of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits for the stage, again sets us afloat between worlds. And the Son of Semele troupe skillfully invokes the eerie, uncanny beauty the ancient Celts revered in places where the faerie realm meets our own.

For all the harsh terrors it evokes, this play flows like a magic river, or a dream.  We swim through the half-real, half-evanescent scenes created by Meg Cunningham (set), Alexander Le Vaillant Freer (lighting), Katarina Pagsolingan (projections) and John Nobori (sound).  Always, we are led by the almost invisible artistry of actors Michael Evans Lopez and Sarah Rosenberg, who grasp and recoil, embrace and avoid, in a thousand subtle ways.  (And they are led by the completely invisible artistry of director Barbara Kallir.)

Son of Semele has earned a reputation for imaginative, surprising
theatre across a widely variety of styles.  In Archipelago, they give one of America’s master playwrights a premiere worthy of her lyrical yet disturbing new work.
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Archipelago, by Caridad Svich, directed by Barbara Kallir.
Presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble, at the Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA 90004.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
Mondays at 7:00;
through June 18th.

Tickets:  <www.artful.ly/son-of-semele-ensemble>  or
(213) 351-3507.