As the house lights dim, the actors walk onto the playing area, which comprises a toilet, a clawfoot bathtub, candles, lit chandeliers. Almost ritualistically, they peel off their street clothes, don cassocks. One of them, half nude, slips into the tub. Thus, symbolically, the travelers begin their journey.
It’s a mesmerizing opening to Luis Alfaro’s new play, “The Travelers,” written not only specifically for this Magic Theatre world premiere but also for the very actors in it.
At once sacred and profane, fierce, funny and poignant, the drama is consistently enthralling.
It’s set in a quasi-derelict Catholic monastery in the Central Valley, where a group of religious recluses, with Brother Brian (Brian M. Rivera) at the helm, struggle to make ends meet. They’re so meagerly supported by the archdiocese that they can barely afford food. They’re hanging on by a frayed thread. Each brother has his own personal reasons for living here in this remote church, and along the way we learn their individual stories and watch as they suffer through their individual, idiosyncratic journeys.
Into the mix comes an outsider, bleeding from a chest wound, and collapses, inert, on the floor. Is he dead or alive? Has he been stabbed? The brothers scurry about anxiously, and it’s a wonderfully comical counterpoint to the solemn opening. Alfaro is a writer, who, like Samuel Beckett, can gracefully juxtapose comedy, lyricism and despair in his wry examination of the human condition. (Alfaro claims the late Maria Irene Fornès as his mentor.)
The defiant outsider, who introduces himself as Juan (played by Juan Amador), is a lapsed Catholic who wants nothing to do with churchiness. “Booze, cocaine, Fresno motels. I have been around,” he says. But Brother Brian insists he must stay here until he recovers. “We are all travelers,” he reassures Juan, in his sanctimonious way. “Our journeys take place inside.”
When Juan wanders into the bathroom to use the toilet, he discovers the man in the tub. Open-hearted, naïve Ogie (Ogie Zulueta) has been living in the tub as far back as he can remember (shades of Beckett again). The ways in which the two men eventually bond are surprising—the rest of the brothers simply ignore the poor bathtub guy—and touching. This is a group of devout Catholics who pray on a schedule, sing hymns to the tune of “Kumbaya,” agree to Brother Brian’s no-talking dictum four hours a day, but somehow don’t accept the innate humanity of the captive in the tub.
We’re lucky to have privy to the inside journeys of these characters, not just Brian’s and Juan’s and Ogie’s (whose inner journey is more like a child’s wish) but also those of devout Brother Yiyo (Guillermo Yiyo Ornelas) with his free-floating anxieties, tough-guy Brother Nancho (Kinan Valdez) and former “Mexican clown” Brother Daniel (Daniel Duque-Estrada).
One misstep, though: Distracting videos on a big upstage screen (mostly of wild animals, perhaps representing California’s natural environment that we humans share) and scrolled subtitles (“Resurrection,” “Penance” and more), which, depending on where you’re sitting, are hard to read, often partly obliterated by the pillars on the playing area. All that’s needed, all that really matters, is Alfaro’s luminous writing, the terrific cast and the vibrant staging by director Catherine Castellanos.
“The Travelers” continues through March 5 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$70; call (415) 441-8822 or visit magictheatre.org.