As versatile as John Horn is, I never imagined the actor as a Tijuana barkeep, but there he is at the 2100 Square Feet theater in Wesley Walker’s Wilfredo, playing the titular character dressed in a yoked cowboy jacket, hair slicked back and a Pedro Armendariz mustache stretched along his upper lip. Horn, who‘s essayed characters from the itinerant con man in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer to a cancer patient in John Steppling‘s Sea of Cortez, is nevertheless in familiar territory, which is to say, a no man’s land of the soul. Wilfred — he inexplicably prefers his name‘s Anglo form — does not run some gringo magnet like Señor Frog’s or Hussong‘s Cantina, but a bar co-owned by two mysterious brothers whose names might as well be Sartre and Buñuel. (Being unable to leave this tavern is hardly the problem — Wilfred can’t even peel himself away from its counter.)
Still, two Americans soon arrive. Tanner (George Gerdes) at first declines Wilfred‘s courtly offer of the house specialty, a tequila made from a diseased agave plant. He eventually relents, though, and the drink turns his body and brain inside out, forcing him to beat a lengthy retreat to the men’s room. Later, a TV news reporter named Rutlege (Jack Kehler) appears, samples the tequila and seemingly expires, whereupon his corpse is dragged outside and placed on a bus bench.
Locals come and go: Esther (O-Lan Jones), the daughter of one of the bar‘s owners — although no one seems to be quite sure which brother is her dad (Wilfred helpfully reminds her it can’t be both); Esther‘s childishly dim husband, Nester (Barry Del Sherman); and the alluring but even more childlike Roberta (Christine Marie Burke). These three hold secrets to Wilfred’s past as well as to the futures of the Americans. Tying everyone together is Wilfred‘s obsessive talk about his “bueno” — two antique gold coins that have vanished. “I look at them at night when I am alone or cold,” Wilfred says, a line both touching and repugnant.
Wilfredo is set in a bar in which javelins rest against a wall that also sprouts tusklike meat hooks. This provokes the view of the play being a dream that unfolds in the waking world, which perhaps explains its Mexican locale and sleepwalking characters, who speak in overarticulated English. Not that it hurts, after all, to have a little aural clarity in an evening that leaves many more questions unanswered than resolved: How imaginary are Wilfredo’s doubloons — at least, when they are said to be inside Tanner‘s gut? Are they any less real than Roberta’s invisible daughters? Are the coins even Wilfred‘s, since he stole them long ago?
As existential comedy, Wilfredo packs a certain punch, combining claustrophobic moral environments, conflicting memories and self-deceptions into a velvet painting of unrelieved folly. Walker’s characters are not so airy that we can never get a grip on them, nor is their dialogue so densely self-referential that it becomes soporific. The key to holding our attention in this Padua Playwrights production is Walker‘s crisp direction of his own work and his use of a trusted design team. Jangling guitar riffs, pools of lurid light and a neat wooden arena of a set (by respective designers Robert Oriol, Rand Ryan and Jeffrey Atherton) establish a focused moment in time, even if that moment is pretty damned hallucinatory. And it’s hard to imagine a cast more in tune with Walker‘s whimsical sonata than this one, especially the tormented Horn, who carries the show, and the impishly charming Jones, who provides him with an enigmatic foil.
Where the play works best is on the levels of language and imagery, even if these two don’t always intersect. “Why is everything made of glass?” the clumsy Nester asks, and the film-loop re-entrances of some characters add to the evening‘s playfulness.
Yet the play’s meaning is so obscure that we leave the theater not really caring what to make of it. Indeed, from the start we correctly intuit from the production‘s body language that this will be a play of speeches and not conversations, of invocation instead of mystery, sporting, as it does, the kind of blocking where actors stand mostly apart from one another and face outward, as though on transporter pads waiting to be beamed up to the Enterprise. Their characters are like statues into whose mouths someone has stuffed aphoristic poetry.
The purest poetry is really about little more than language itself but makes us believe it is about everything; likewise, while everything on Walker’s stage seems at stake, in fact none of it is, at least for the audience. That‘s because emotionally, Wilfredo is an arid diorama whose inhabitants we observe with safe detachment — it’s one thing to hold our attention and quite another to provoke our insecurities. It may sound vulgar, but the best test in this case is the oldest: Do we want to return to our seats after intermission? I don‘t mean that in the sense that a good play may lose a lazy audience — is there a promise that Act 2 will be substantially different from Act 1; are we likely to learn something we can’t already guess? Many plays skirt the question by not having an intermission; Wilfredo, bravely enough, has two acts, but it remains a play in which characters proclaim certain dreams and memories, say some outlandish things and poke fun at California materialism, but without giving us reason to care.
The program notes say that Walker‘s play came about from a nasty journey the playwright took to Mexico after which he returned a physical wreck. Ultimately, then, Wilfredo’s message may not be the modernist lesson that hell is other people, but an even older warning — don‘t drink the water.