Honest. Crude. Raw. Those are some of the words that came to me as I walked away from Steep Theatre after experiencing The Leopard Play or sad songs for lost boys. I say “experiencing” because Isaac Gomez does not allow you to just “watch” his play. The combination of Gomez’ brutally real family story, which to some extent reflects his own life, and the intimate Steep space makes it impossible for you to feel the distance that a traditional proscenium theater might allow you. The play is a world premiere by the Chicago playwright.
Director Laura Alcalá Baker gives this tough play a warm undercurrent with a strong cast. Gomez’ poetic script feels very true in its descriptions of family life and love in El Paso and its sister city, Ciudad Juarez, on the U.S. southern border. It’s a community we know mainly from headlines about the recent mass shooting at an El Paso WalMart and our government’s inhumane treatment of immigrants trying to enter our country.
You are there as Son, Dad, Older Brother and the Uncles gather to prepare for the memorial for the Other Other Uncle, who died mysteriously. Son (Brandon Rivera) keeps asking how Uncle Max died but the heart attack explanation is the only one offered and Son is suspicious. The all-male cast represents Son’s family past and his other life in the person of Boy (Alec Coles Perez, Son’s boyfriend or hookup in various guises). There’s also Little Brother (Juan Muñoz), also gay, who’s away at college and doesn’t manage to get home in time for the memorial. Older Brother is played by Arash Fakhrabadi.
Son is a writer who has lived in Chicago for 10 years. He has returned to his El Paso home for the memorial. Dad (Victor Maraña) tells him how much they have missed him over the years but doesn’t hesitate to let him know that his parents don’t approve of his gay lifestyle. We never meet Mom, who is always working. She’s the main income earner in the family, ironic in this machismo culture. Dad works odd jobs and hands most of his earnings over to his wife.
Time switches back and forth throughout the play. One thread is the older set of brothers—Dad, Uncle (Eduardo Curley-Carrillo), Other Uncle (Sebastian Arboleda) and Other Other Uncle (Dennis Garcia) and their loving and belligerent relationships. “We see men’s relationship to other men built to topple at the slightest breath of intimacy. We feel how close a hug is to a choke when love and hate share a home,” director Alcalá Baker says in her program notes. They love each other but they’re always on the verge of a fight. The four uncles all have animal nicknames, the sources of which are never explained. Dad is the eponymous leopard; uncle is a rodent; other uncle is Taz, or a Tasmanian devil.
Dad is a Green Bay Packers fan and loves the music of Elton John. “He’s gay, you know,” Son says to Dad. “Gay? No. Not to me he isn’t,.” Dad says. John’s music is played frequently throughout The Leopard Play, including a sweet, funny and semi-awkward father-son duet to “Bennie and the Jets.”
The Leopard Play is sometimes a memory play. One scene is a conjuring of what happened to Other Other Uncle as the uncles’ business deal went wrong. “Where do you think you get all the pot you smoke huh?,” Older Brother asks the disbelieving Son.
The central scene of the play is the memorial for Uncle Max, years after his death and burial. Dad makes a speech to welcome all the Uncles and Brothers, wearing dark suit jackets to signify the solemnity of the occasion. It’s the opportunity for Dad to remind his brothers of how long they have taken to properly put their brother’s memory to rest. The play ends with a gloomy reprise of “Rocket Man” by Dad and the uncles as Son walks away from his past to his present and future.
In a uniformly strong cast, Brandon Rivera glows as the torn, soulful and defiant Son. Victor Maraña also gives a moving performance as Dad. Arnel Sancianco is responsible for the scenic design and Alexander Ridgers for the spectacular dramatic lighting. Costumes are by Uriel Gomez and choreography by Breon Arzell. Thomas Dixon is sound designer.
The Leopard Play, in a way, is a bookend to Gomez’ 2018 play, La Ruta. Its all-female cast represents the women who work in the maquiladora factories on the border and are disappeared and murdered as they walk home in the dark on la ruta, (the route). It’s a powerful story of sisterhood and violence.
The no-naming convention in The Leopard Play reminds me of the Anna Burns novel, Milkman, which won the 2019 Man Booker Prize. In her compelling and experimental novel, set in the North of Ireland during the Troubles, characters are referred to by their place in the family or their relationship to Middle Sister, the leading character. (She has a Maybe Boyfriend.) There actually is a Milkman in the story but he’s not the Milkman for whom the book is named. The Burns book is also a story of family love and brutality, set in an unnamed city that is certainly Belfast. (In José Saramago’s harrowing novel, Blindness, the characters are named by their dress or physical characteristic.)
The Leopard Play, or sad songs for lost boys, at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave., has been extended through March 1. Tickets are $27-$39 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is 110 minutes with no intermission.
Note: The production is intended for adult audiences because of language, sex acts, violence and more. See the Steep advisory for more information.