Lack of funding. Lack of a space. The lead actor and the understudy contracting mononucleosis. These are common reasons theatre productions are canned. Rarely does the INS play a role.
Yet that's exactly what happened to Guillermo Reyes' San Diego-set play, Deporting the Divas . All was set for the local premiere at 6th@Penn Studio in the summer of 2000 until Charles Lago, the theater's former producer and a British national, was stopped at a border checkpoint and deported.
Though the original premiere was aborted, the play has been carried to term a second time, set for delivery at Diversionary Theatre on Sunday, April 6. Before the final curtain falls, each of the four male actors-J. J. Cisneros, Juan Manzo, Jason Waller and Arturo Medina-will get a chance play the diva in Reyes' surreal, hilarious comedy.
Reyes, a Chilean-American and U.S. citizen, heads the playwriting department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His first play, Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown , began as an off-night attraction at Celebration Theatre and went all the way to New York's off-Broadway. Reyes describes it as an anthology of monologues delving into the lives of immigrants who are either gay or "ambiguous."
Inspired by the borderland culture Reyes experienced at UCSD, Deporting the Divas was nurtured by the university's Dr. Jorge Huerta. "Jorge introduced me to Chicano theater," Reyes says. "As a Chilean, I had a lot to learn about that culture and identity, which is part of my life now."
Reyes arranged a series of readings and developmental workshops to get the comedy off the ground, and then directed the world premiere in Los Angeles seven years ago. After additional rewrites, Divas played in San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros, where it copped a Dramalogue Award for best original play. Portland's Miracle Theatre, Phoenix, Arizona's In Mixed Company and New York City's Here Space have also run the play.
Adele Shank and Allan Havis were additional mentors from UCSD, Reyes says. They challenged him to think structurally and remain focused, despite what he calls his "condition at the time," which approximated attention deficit disorder.
"Guillermo has done a magnificent thing," says Divas guest director Kirsten Brandt, also artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre. "He's addressed the issue of border relationships in the guise of really hilarious comedy that makes you aware of what's going on in your own community."
"I tried to capture the lively bustle and hustle of the city by coming to grips with one of its primary issues: its status as a border city where two nationalities come face to face," says Reyes, who complicates the issue further by adding gender identity to the mix.
Set in 1995, Divas begins with a speech delivered to the Ladies of the Club by the politically active character, Marge McCarthy, who describes herself as "Your Chairwoman-for-Life."
We know the type.
Marge declares she will not be ousted because of gay content the "ladies" will see in Deporting the Divas .
"I make an appearance as a character somewhere in Act Two," Marge says in the opening speech. "I'm being played by a man."
What makes this deliciously funny, of course, is that speechifying Marge already is "played by a man." While the other characters are aware that they are men in diva's clothing, Marge's self-denial makes the introduction a hilarious warm up to Reyes' gender-bending work.
Divas , which evolved from Reyes' Men on the Verge , concerns Michael, a Mexican-American border patrol agent who doesn't speak Spanish. Though he is married and has a family, Michael has visions of cross-border gay wedding ceremonies and divas.
In his Spanish class at City College, Michael meets another Spanish-challenged Latino who happens to be gay and undocumented. It's a dilemma of immense proportions that sets Michael on the path to discovering his own inner diva and his true gender identity. There are plenty of topical twists and in-jokes along the way.
The internet is rife with erudite musings about the meaning and intent of Reyes' work and its underlying messages of transformation, gender identity, society, culture and politics. The playwright says he uses devices of film noir, aspects of magical realism, playwright Charles Ludlum and the obvious theatrical tradition of having the formidable dowager played by a man.
"When I write, I think about how it'll play in front of an audience," Reyes explains. "I can't always keep track of erudite aesthetics. The influence of the two Charles is important-Busch and Ludlum-since they both worked with Ridiculous Theater notions, the rehashing of old films to create a pleasingly ridiculous effect. Manuel Puig did this as well with Kiss of the Spider Woman. He was fascinated by fantasy and its effects on reality.
"I enjoyed the concepts of passing gay for straight, Latino for white, illegal for legal, man for woman, etc," Reyes continues. "But again, I don't write with conscious choices. Once I do rewrites, I may make more specific choices regarding those issues. I enjoy that process of discovery."
Not surprisingly, an additional play is spinning off from Divas . The character named Sirena has demanded her own play, titled Sirena, Queen of the Tango. Reyes is still not entirely satisfied with the work (which recently had its third production in Portland) but, he says, "I'm getting close to a definitive version."
Currently on sabbatical, Reyes is working on a plethora of projects that include screenplays, new plays and a sequel titled Men on the Verge 2 , which will premiere in Portland. He's completed his first play in Spanish, based on a doomed love affair related to him by his mother. It takes place in 1960s Chile, the place he and his mother fled for a flat in Los Angeles when Reyes was 7.
And yet another project that's left in his 41-year-old body: "I'm doing my first half-marathon in La Jolla in April," he says. "I'm feeling better about myself now, feeling that I'm defying age somehow, although that's self-delusion."