Review: Horror and humor the vehicle for Crowded Fire’s fantastic ‘Displaced’

Marísa (Jordan Maria Don) connects with the spirits of her ancestors in The Displaced at Crowded Fire Theater in San Francisco as Lev (Troy Rockett) looks on. (Cover photo) Marísa (Don) and Lev (Rockett) try to unlock the mysteries of their new apartment. The show runs through Oct. 3 at Potrero Stage. (Adam Tolbert photos)

The joy of embracing a new living situation can come with lots of banal choices, yet with each decision that speaks for those who are now ready to go fully into adulting mode, there is excitement. New lives, new realities and new memories are ready to be activated.

But what happens when the little slice of home you love doesn’t want to love you back? Maybe even force you to get your ass out?

In Crowded Fire Theater’s fantastic production of The Displaced, a play crafted from the delicious mind of Chicago-based playwright Isaac Gomez, there is so much going on, and all of it blends together seamlessly inside a set that’s unlike most designs you’ll see. While modern theatre tends to get very giddy about their dependence on projections, this production goes right at the audience with organic exuberance, a veritable playground that pushes the boundaries of live theatre’s capabilities.

Lev (Troy Rockett) and his partner Marísa (Jordan Maria Don) are ensconced in fixer-upper vibes, enjoying the possibilities that come with their new apartment in Chicago’s historic Pilsen neighborhood. Lev carries around a wrench and talks a great game, ready to tackle any pipe that crosses him, while Marísa offers touches that speak to her warmth. Pastel colors for the walls are more her vibe, yet Lev offers her the “Blaxican” experience in homage to their interracial relationship, which means a full-blown mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe featuring green, red and black. This is the first of many disagreements the couple engages with through the course of the story’s 90 consecutive minutes.

The play moves at a very specific pace, two characters toggling a host of issues, stopping those quarrels only to attempt to christen their new spot with some lovin’. Yet anytime the steam reaches a fever pitch, some mysterious force shuts it all down.

Mina Morita and Karina Gutiérrez co-direct the piece, and it’s clear they are positively giddy about moving the story through space. The two creatives calibrate the play beautifully due to the script being deceptively tricky. Moments of anger must be followed with scenes of heartache, rage, confusion and soul-sucking fear. There are certainly times the script might want to lean away from quick set ups and resolutions that remove the organic feel of such whip-smart dialogue, but any hiccups in the text are solved by the wholly committed cast.

The play’s brilliance comes from its premise. Horror, a revered genre in Latinx culture, is the vehicle to deconstruct a much larger issue that attacks marginalized communities all over – gentrification, or “gentefication.” The dynamic of big money walking in and pushing out the panaderia and carniceria is explored in the piece, but with a deliciously satisfying journey and a chilling denouement.

The direction of Morita and Gutiérrez is fluid and full, which informs performances of both Rockett and Don that brings forth truth to the story. Often, the characters have to stop on a dime and change course due to some abrupt transitioning. And each time, those shifts are handled with the right amount of tension, suave como la mantequilla.

Rockett and Don are great foils for each other. While Rockett’s Lev has to move between calm stoicism and blood-curdling fear, Don’s Marísa has to operate on another level. To her credit, the performance never goes down the cliché trap and achieve unintended laughs. There is a truth to each choice, exquisitely detailed as bodies and attitudes transform. These daring performances, guided by intimacy coordinator Maya Herbsman, are high artistry.

While the piece features a cast of two, the third character is the magnificent set designed by Carlos Aceves with special effects from Devon Labelle. There is a temptation to try and figure out how the set is doing these things that defy logic, however the better approach is just to enjoy what artists are capable of in this realm. The set and performances are dynamically unified, resting wonderfully in the intimate Potrero Stage, a narrative that is both funny and thought-provoking.

When we reach the end of the play (which changes depending on the night of the performance), the superbly metaphoric strains of Banda El Recodo’s mega hit “Y Llegaste Tu” shooting through Alexa, there is much to decipher. The story is told with hilarity and hubris, a delving into the spirits of the ancestors, and a very real conversation about our role in displacing those who built lives on a tiny plot of land, only to be driven out to make way for a new wave of gentrifiers. That certainly doesn’t include us, right?

Maybe it does. And what comes next is supremely decadent and satisfying. Revenge is certainly a dish best served cold, which is also the temperature of Lev and Marísa’s pizza by the time it finally arrives.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Crowded Fire Theater presents The Displaced
Written by Isaac Gomez
Directed by Mina Morita and Karina Gutiérrez
Featuring Troy Rockett and Jordan Maria Don
The Word: A witty script and strong performances informs this piece of gentrification revenge. The innovative set steals the show in many instances.
Through Oct. 3
The Potrero Stage
1695 18th St. San Francisco 94107
Pay What You Can
Proof of vaccination required for entry
For tickets and more info, call (415) 523-0034, or visit crowdedfire.org

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