Theater review: Stigmata

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No doubt about it, playwright Don Cook has this thing about hands. In his new play, starring his superlative actress wife Divina at The Warehouse in Cornelius, the title has us on the lookout for special bloody effects involving the hands. We do remember Agnes of God from the CAST production this past spring, don’t we? Well, anything set in a locked cell and called Stigmata would seem to have a blood capsule or ten up its sleeve.

And the other character, playing opposite Divina in this DC2 production directed by the playwright, is a hand, one that responsively — sometimes clairvoyantly — slips food and significant personal items into the cell via a trapdoor. When ruthless tycoon Carmen Ruiz first awakes, she cannot determine whether she has been kidnapped or falsely arrested. A New York Times Magazine section with her beloved crossword puzzle is included on her breakfast tray, but that doesn’t decisively settle where she is or how long she’s been unconscious. Nor is Carmen impressed by the quality of the coffee she is served — or the freshness of the lox on her bagel.

Ruiz has risen to lofty, haughty heights from her humble beginnings. She begins telling the Hand — that’s what she calls whoever is on the other side of the door — how she became the “Spitch” (a conflation of Spanish and bitch that Carmen actually gets a kick out of) Ballbuster of Wall Street, and a hot number on the Times’ most-hated list. Somewhere around Omaha, a cruel pietistic mother confined Little Carmen to a closet daily after school, steeling the child’s resolve, while her father ineffectually empathized.

She seems to have escaped her mom, with dad’s help, after graduation, heading for Chicago at about the time Richie Valens was riding high on “La Bamba.” Cook the playwright gives Carmen a strategic set of role models and connected helpers to give the prisoner’s story coherence, and Cook the actress transitions back and forth from the soft victimhood of her youth to the predatory wheeler-dealer she becomes in her social climbing adulthood with a cheetah’s swiftness, relishing her rise to Wall Street power as she recounts it.

The gradual revelation of what’s really going on here is the strongest aspect of the script, ultimately overcoming whatever uneasiness we might experience over those sudden spasmodic switches to Little Carmen that we see during Prisoner Carmen’s long narrative to the unseen, unspeaking Hand. DC the playwright, however, would be well advised to look at the devices he uses to prod Carmen’s narrative forward — and how many times he uses them. A crafty revision would likely have fewer prompts to Carmen from crossword puzzle clues and lighter traffic of her mementos passing under the door. As for Carmen’s lost brother Alejandro, either make it clear what happened to him or kindly exorcise him from the family.

Stigmata certainly doesn’t play like a work that has been rushed to the stage for its premiere. In actuality, Theatre Charlotte had the piece on its calendar nearly three years when Divina was diagnosed with cancer. Well, DC the actress is very much better now, a powerful presence in an 85-minute gem. Not a flawless gem, but a true one.

You probably don’t call Stigmata a two-hander, however, except in jest. A more diminutive script, Wade Sheeler’s Vortex qualifies as the genuine article. Staged by The Edge Theatre Company at its South Pointe High School HQ in Rock Hill and directed by Jimmy Chrismon, this tidy one-act takes us Sedona, Arizona, that sacred spot for New Agers, the Hopi, and hosts of other Native Americans.

A few scraps of standard camping gear, a gun, a crystal, and enough smooth stones to make a fairly impressive circle are all we need to evoke the locale and the situation. Jones, the shaman, arrives first and arranges the stones into a prayer circle and, after numerous preliminary rituals and chants, enters within. His meditations barely begin when Mark bursts in, gun in hand, every inch the desperate paranoid fugitive. So paranoid that it’s a life-and-death struggle for the purifying Jones to calm Mark down.

While five to 10 years of aging would do wonders for his credibility, Brandon Dimatteo brought a nicely tuned volatility to Mark, more than enough to carry me over edge to believing that somewhere out there in the desert, his little daughter was in the clutches of the mob. Likewise, Dennis DeJesus brought an athletic dimension to Jones that was handy in the denouement. Until then, DeJesus’ Hispanic shagginess gave sufficient heft to his sagely spirituality in the absence of gray hairs or wrinkles. A little less of the Treasure of the Sierra Madre grittiness to the story than might have been ideal, but a fresh New Age quality in its place.

A look at the back page of the playbill reassured me that the modesty of their Vortex production wasn’t an indication that The Edge is teetering over an abyss. The remainder of Edge Theatre’s 2011-12 schedule is teeming with people, scenery, and even music. But until next summer, when the season closes with Hairspray (June 14-24), Edge productions will run Vortex style — four or five performances and out. You’ll need to be on your toes to catch The Rocky Horror Show (October 28-30), Spring Awakening (December 1-4), and Avenue Q (February 2-5).

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