Cloud Tectonics merges magic and science

Cloud Tectonics is the first play I’ve ever seen in the Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theater. When I walked in it reminded me of this place called York Little Theatre, two blocks away from my house growing up. My grandparents always took my sister and me to see plays, but the most memorable ones weren’t always on the main stage. There’s a certain intimacy to the studio performances that lends itself really well to certain productions. Just walking into the theater in Purnell on Thursday night and looking at the set, I could tell this would be one of those plays.

This isn’t a play you can easily describe in passing with one to two sentences, nor can you just page through the program to get the gist. It took me nearly half of the play to figure out exactly what it was about — although I can tell you that two major themes are time and sex, obsessions many students in the audience could likely relate to.

The set was simply a home on a hardwood square, except it dissolved into floating planks as it moved toward the risers. The play is primarily about characters Celestina del Sol and Aníbal de la Luna, played by junior drama students Isabel Pask and Clayton Barry respectively. Celestina is a pregnant woman who’s been on a cross-country road trip with a truck driver trying to find Rodrigo Cruz, her baby’s father. She got off the truck when the truck driver tried to touch her knees. Aníbal finds her hitchhiking in the middle of the “storm of the century” on his drive home from work at LAX. He offers for her to spend the evening at his house after they both promise not to be axe murderers.

As soon as Celestina walks into the house on the stage, the digital clock on the table next to the couch goes blank. She tells Aníbal stories about her life in Montauk, where she lived her whole life in her bedroom, reading crime novels and thinking about sex. She’s also apparently 54 years old and has been pregnant for two years. She only learned about minutes and hours and weeks and years from the truck driver because she has no conception of time. As they spend time together they fall in love.

Later on there are two interruptions from Aníbal’s brother Nelson, home after six years of military service. While in real-time these appearances feel 20 minutes apart, they are actually two years apart in the play’s timeline. Throughout the course of this intimate night where a moment is a month, Aníbal and Celestina perfectly deliver monologues about their sexual and romantic histories. Silence and speech bear equal weight, and there is an incredible erotic tension.
But once they come back to reality, all hell almost literally breaks loose. She runs away and has her baby, but a massive storm destroys Los Angeles in one night.

We come back in a newly reborn Los Angeles, the capital of the United States, home of the White House. Celestina takes her infant to visit an elderly Aníbal. He doesn’t quite seem to remember or believe that it’s really her, but he tells the story of the night he spent with the woman who doesn’t belong in this world. The play ends with the re-performance of a speech Celestina made earlier in the play to Aníbal, who had forgotten how to speak Spanish. Elderly Aníbal recites the Spanish while she translates into English her musings of what it would have been like to love him at every age — as an infant, as an old man, and all in between. As an ending, this really captivated me. I left the theater having so many feelings about the way time and love are so connected.

As emotional as I was, I had a really hard time explaining why, and even what exactly happened. But then I went back and read through the program. Dramaturg Lina Pulgarin-Duque compiled five pages of background into playwright José Rivera’s affinity for magical realism, and how similar it is to the scientific method. An author formulates a question: what would reality be like if a woman could exist outside of time? And then in writing a story, they test their hypothesis and try to make that fantastic reality seem plausible. She gives the example of a theory Aníbal has that “[Love] alters the physics around you in some way: changing the speed of light and the shape of space and how you experience time.” A magical concept, but actually grounded in Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The play was so beautifully acted, directed, produced, and lit, but I think it was really smart for the production team to acknowledge that this play is challenging to understand on its own. They did the necessary research for the average theater-goer. I was very thankful that they provided a really approachable thematic summary in order to help us contextualize the beautiful storm that was Cloud Tectonics: the merging of the sky, sun, moon, and ground.