In Flowers, Lulu wakes on the morning of her 12th birthday with untreatable, unspeakable acne—acne that soon transforms into hibiscus flowers and leaves. Despondent, she attempts suicide with a pair of garden shears, but her brother Beto dissuades her. “It’s beautiful,” Beto tells her, “it’s cool.” There’s plenty of beautiful and cool in José Rivera’s Giants have us in their books, a sextet of short pieces that includes Flowers. These “six children’s plays for adults,” along with Migdalia Cruz’s Miriam’s Flowers and Edwin Sanchez’s Unmerciful Good Fortune, celebrate 35 years of INTAR, the long-running Hispanic theater company.
The short plays of Giants have the magical-realist flavor for which Rivera is best known. Vibrant and sensual, they concern ordinary Nuyoricans faced with extraordinary situations. Highlights include the budding beauty in Flowers, the chatty man-eater of A Tiger in Central Park, and the expectant mother with a preternatural nesting instinct in The Winged Man. Less successful is The Crooked Cross, in which a suburban teenager receives a pair of swastika earrings for her birthday and discovers she cannot remove them. Attempts to treat the exigencies of the Holocaust in 20-minute Nazi-lite format rarely succeed.
The best play, though it concerns an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, is strictly realistic—not magical at all. In Gas, Cheo reflects on warfare: the Gulf War where his brother fights and the social war within his New York community. Though he abhors Republican blood-for-oil policy, he marvels that fear for his brother’s safety has him wanting “people I don’t hate to die.” As played by Michael Ray Escamilla, Cheo makes political debate poignant and personal without once devolving into sentimentality. INTAR couldn’t hope for a better tribute.