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Marilyn Romero brings a bone-tired resignation to her portrayal of Chunga. Poignantly, the actor allows the character's closed-down heart to be pried open by her concern for and attraction to Meche. Powerfully, Chunga stands up to the ruthless Josefino by sassing him in front of his cronies and by refusing to be his partner in running a brothel.

As Meche, Patricia Azan adroitly wavers between innocence and experience. Pretty but not particularly bright, Meche is aware of the power of her looks, yet she remains blind to any other power she might possess. And in conversations with Chunga, she reveals the danger inherent in confusing dependency and loss of control with being in love.

Rather than tell us what really happens to Meche, Vargas Llosa leaves it for us to decide. Unfazed by this lack of resolution, Rodaz wraps up the play on a melancholy note of longing. I left the theater with my versions of Meche's fate dueling inside my head. In one romantic outcome, Meche escapes to a better life in Lima, Peru. (That's my fantasy about liberation, freedom, and self-expression.) In another conclusion, Meche makes it to Lima but is forced into prostitution anyway. (That's the jaded social realist in me talking.) Vargas Llosa, an incessant narrative innovator and commentator on the art of storytelling, would have been pleased.

The Miami Beach-based Bridge Theater, dedicated to presenting English-language productions of Hispanic and Hispanic-American plays since 1986, found themselves homeless last year. (How unusual for a struggling company these days.) After a frustrating search, the theater has secured at least temporary shelter at the Miami Beach Woman's Club, a jewel of a building on Pinetree Drive. It dates back to the Twenties with wood-beamed ceilings and an airy atmosphere reminiscent of the lakeside recreation halls from my summers in upstate New York. Alchemy of Desire/Dead-man's Blues by playwright Caridad Svich (she is self-described in the program as a "hybrid [of] Spanish, Cuban, Croatian, and Argentine descent") opens the company's season.

Offbeat and compelling, Alchemy eschews realism as ardently as Vargas Llosa's work does. Through an impressionistic tableau of scenelets about grief and recovery, it relays how a young woman possessed by the spirit of her husband, recently killed in an unnamed war, is healed by the women in her community.

Incorporating hard-hitting monologues, dance movements, singing, and hallucinations, the script uses language that leaps from the elemental and sensual to the lyrical and arcane. In places Svich relies too enthusiastically on abstraction and mysticism. Since we are never told which war claimed husband Jamie, we can only assume he was killed by war with a capital W. Young widow Simone and the gang live in a nonspecific bayou-flavored, Southern backwood. Uneducated and possibly illiterate, they communicate in stunted, faux-poetic phrasing yet of course, they are much wiser than we are.

Such pretensions aside, the evening, as expressively directed by Steve Wise, cuts to the emotional core. It features guitar, flute, and drum music by Ry Cooder and the Chieftains (guaranteed to stir the heart any time it is heard), twilight-inspired lighting by Travis Neff, and a clean, sparse set by Jeffrey B. Phipps. Mariangelica Ayala, a Venezuelan actor making her Miami debut, heads a dynamic cast. In a raw, punchy monologue about chicken bones and death delivered after Jamie's funeral, Ayala's Simone slings her anger and grief at the audience as if she were drunk on mourning. The delirious, shattering, and unrestrained performance goes straight for the wounded parts harbored by all of us.

The women bent on rescuing Simone from her pain also inch their way powerfully under our skin: Caroline (Marjorie O'Neill-Butler), always busy at some task like snapping beans, cutting vegetables, or washing clothes; Selah (Pat Bowie), chewing on the end of a corncob pipe while dispensing wisdom; Tirasol (Eileen Engel), wringing her hands with worry; Miranda (Susan Gay), young, sullen, restless, yet eager to learn from her elders. Into this mix add the ghost-memory of Jamie, played by Todd Behrend, who in this role looks remarkably like a wide-eyed, guileless John Travolta.

Miami Beach neighbors Area Stage and the Bridge Theater have brought us English-language works by playwrights steeped in Hispanic culture, each of whom is committed to pushing the borders of typical play writing. It's a felicitous stroke of synchronistic programming that offers a refreshing challenge to South Florida audiences.

Alchemy of Desire/Dead-Man's Blues. Written by Caridad Svich; directed by Steve Wise; with Mariangelica Ayala, Eileen Engel, Marjorie O'Neill-Butler, Pat Bowie, Susan Gay, and Todd Behrend. Through December 22. Call 886-3908 for information or see "Calendar Listings."

La Chunga. Written by Mario Vargas Llosa; directed by Maria and John Rodaz; with Marilyn Romero, Patricia Azan, John Rodaz, Sergio Campa-Perez, Oscar Torres, and Pablo Duran. Through January 5. For information, call 673-8002 or see "Calendar Listings.

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