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Deadly Sin

Samara Siskind and Frank Rodriguez as Luz and Luis in Sin Full Heaven

Ricky J. Martinez does not deserve the following review.

Martinez is a nice guy, all comfy pats-on-the-back and easy laughter, and he's obviously passionate about his work. He gets giddy while discussing it, and that's fine. I wish his work would provoke some giddiness in me. It doesn't.

Sin Full Heaven is the third segment in Martinez's In God's Land: An Island Trilogy, and I pray that it's a misstep, that it was written in the morphine-addled wake of some experimental, invasive brain surgery. Even if you forgive the clumsy acting and cliché-riddled, pseudo-poetic dialogue — which sounds like the work of a love-struck thirteen-year-old with a hard-on for Blake — you're left with the irreducible fact of the story.

On a "timeless island" there is a plantation surrounded by guards and vicious attack dogs. In a house on that plantation lives a young girl named Luz. One night a man bursts through her window, waking her from a dream in which she is having sex with the ocean. The man is Luis, the housekeeper's son, a sailor. He has three days of shore leave before him, and he wants to visit his mother. Can he crash for the night?

That this strange man has made it past the guards and the dogs and climbed through her window bothers Luz not at all. What bothers her is that her father, José, is likely to kill anyone he finds in his daughter's room. Oh well. Of course Luis can stay.

Luz has hardly ever seen a man in her life, and is helplessly fascinated by the sailor. Within moments the two are helplessly in love. When the housekeeper and father find the sailor in the house the next day, both are perturbed. Screw it: The kids can't help themselves. Suddenly the housekeeper is begging her son to take the girl away, to set her free from this terrible place. Luz's mother, we learn, killed herself because she was kept prisoner on this plantation, and now the housekeeper fears that history is repeating itself.

It is Luz's birthday. She wants a party. Father doesn't like it. Then he does. It's okay. There will be a party.

Then there is an uprising among the plantation workers, but José puts it down, single-handedly. Luis has been stabbed. José arranged for this to happen — no, it was the revolting islanders. Luis is bleeding to death, maybe — he is certainly in terrible pain. José will take him to the hospital; the party is canceled. No, says Luis, the party must continue — I'm only bleeding to death. Yes, says everybody, this is true — the party must go on. But you will go to the hospital. Okay, says Luis, I will go to the hospital. No, say José and Luis, never mind — instead let's stand in the driveway, arguing about Horatio Alger. Luis is covered in bandages. He's in terrible pain. No, never mind — he's climbing nimbly around the roof, star-gazing. No, wait — he's in terrible pain.

José becomes a nice guy, amenable to his daughter's every desire. Luz decides to stay on the plantation, and Luis goes back to sea. They will meet again. The end.

Sin Full Heaven contains some interesting elements of magical realism that would be daring if they weren't so clearly accidental. We learn that Luz's pregnant mother made the housekeeper promise that, should her child ever be kept prisoner on this plantation, the housekeeper would do her best to set that child free. Then the mother — still pregnant! — drowned herself. The body washed up, and despite being dead, proceeded to give birth to Luz. The next morning the girl was found between her dead mother's legs, smiling and giggling.

It's interesting, but nothing is made of it. As near as the characters can tell, giving birth is perfectly normal behavior for dead ladies. Just like people who are bleeding to death will insist that their wounds are less important than a birthday party. Just like rational, well-adjusted human beings will break into the homes of their parents' employers for no good reason at all. This is Martinez's world; thankfully we're just visiting.

If possible, the play's writing is even shoddier than its plot. Never have I seen words strung together so carelessly. When Luz and Luis first meet, romantic tension is illustrated with these lines:

"You're shivering."

"So are you."

Later, when they're stargazing on the roof, we hear this:

Luis: Every star envies you tonight.

Luz: Why?

Luis: Because you're brighter than they are.

Luz: Careful. A sailor like you might go blind.

Luis: Navigating by you, who knows what I'll find?

Immediately afterward, Luis asks Luz how she'd like to be kissed. She's incredulous: "Haven't you kissed women before?" And Luis says — honest to god, he says this — "Never the lips of an angel."

These words receive the kind of interpretation they deserve, though it is unnecessary to discuss the actors' individual performances. Of the four actors, two are competent and two are so wildly, preternaturally inept that to even mention the specifics of their portrayals would be sadistic.

So rather than flog that desiccated horse, let's turn our attention to Sin Full Heaven's cardinal sin. In his program notes, Ricky Martinez explains that the "timeless island" documented in his trilogy is no particular island, in no particular place, in no particular era. He says he has constructed his plays in this way to communicate universally, to anybody who might see them; by eliminating all the specifics from his island, he hopes the inner humanity of its inhabitants might be revealed.

The opposite happens. A good sense of time and place, a convincing atmosphere, a feeling of context — these things can redeem a lot of sloppy writing and blunt dramatic instincts. But Martinez has obliterated them. His intentions are good, but they're based on the kind of knee-jerk liberal assumptions that make so much PC art so blandly contemptible.

If you peel away everything that makes characters specific — that ties them to a particular community in a particular place in a particular time — they're not even people anymore, and the audience certainly won't relate to them as such. It's good to want your characters to have something in common with the people filling the seats, but the first thing they need to have in common is their individuality. If that doesn't happen, you've got just marionettes mouthing clichés. Without having any unique attributes, clichés are the only things these poor people can mouth; in a totally undifferentiated world, nothing but clichés are relevant. Which means they'll work just fine on Martinez's island, but Miami deserves better.


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