Often nostalgia and trauma share the same home. For Isaac Gomez, that place is El Paso, Texas. His new script, Leopard Play, or sad songs for lost boys, features a character who is only billed as “Son.” After ten years, Son returns to El Paso for a memorial in honor of his uncle who died of a heart attack — or at least that’s what the autopsy says. In a search for answers surrounding his uncle’s mysterious death, Son must confront painful family dynamics and his own romantic relationships. In Steep Theatre’s world premiere production, directed by Laura Alcalá Baker, the past squares off against the present for an electrifying and emotive piece of theatre. The Leopard Play will have you wanting to call your parents and go out dancing.
Isaac Gomez’s all-male script is most interested in how masculinity plays out through family dynamics; father to son, brother to brother, and uncle to nephew. The playwright even goes so far to name each character by their role within the family. The dominant father-son relationship is portrayed in painful detail by Victor Maraña (Dad) and Brandon Rivera (Son). The two exchange a loving moment where they perform Elton John’s hit “Benny and the Jets” as a bumbling duet. For every expression of love, however, there is an equal and opposite expression of disappointment. Victor Maraña’s Dad is the man of the house. His machismo extends over the audience and elicits respect, fear, and sympathy.
Son regularly searches for an escape from his family during the visit, and finds freedom in an unabashed expression of sexuality. The objects of Son’s affection are always played by the same figure, Alec Coles Perez (Boy) — whether it’s a Grindr hookup, a digital dalliance, or an old flame. Perez flips from one man to another with an unmatched frequency. Other actors onstage play multiple characters, but none take on the same weight. Alec Coles Perez is a pleasure to watch and inspires a familiarity within seconds.
Son and Boy share multiple sexual interactions, and the work of intimacy and violence director Micha Figueroa is critical for this raw and graphic production. The difference between intimacy and violence is incredibly important, and the playwright purposefully toes that line. Figueroa carefully constructs vulnerability in a very intimate setting where the audience is right on top of the action. The safety and consideration provided to the performers translates to the audience, helping them confront the same violence that Son has been running away from.
Like so much in this production, balance is a must. Where there is great pain we are also allowed moments of joy. At one point early in the play, Son mentions that it is easier for him to deal with family drama if he imagines everyone doing Rhianna choreography. That is exactly what we get. Choreographer Breon Arzell flexes on stage with multiple energizing dance numbers. I am also a Rhianna stan, so I thoroughly enjoyed these breakout performances. This bright and vibrant choreography is in stark contrast to the swaggering Elton John songs that the family regularly plays from their boom box.
In this play of contrasts, the design elements bring this aspect to the forefront. Scenic designer Arnel Sancianco decorates the two stage entrances in a way that mirrors Son’s own conflicting identities. The stage right entrance is covered by a beaded curtain with an image of the Virgin Mary. The stage left entrance is covered with silver tinsel. Lighting design by Alexander Ridgers leans into this contrast with the two colors socially associated with the gender binary; blue and pink. Only it’s not JUST blue and pink, it’s cerulean and fuchsia (the specific shades are of the utmost importance). The cooling cerulean wash fights against the bold and buzzing neon fuchsia that wraps around the set.
Director Laura Alcalá Baker taps into elements of Gomez’s script that lie beneath the text. She has cultivated a visceral experience to best translate a gut feeling. The production is incredibly moving and has imprinted mesmerizing stage pictures. This world premiere showcases an emotive question of identity, but it also calls attention to pieces of the script that could be tightened.
Loose narrative threads dangle on the sides of this vibrant tapestry. The role of Little Brother is one such thread. Little Brother calls Son with questions about the upcoming memorial. He doesn’t even know if he can make it on time and that conflict builds tension with each new message. When Little Brother does finally arrive, the tension deflates without any payoff; he just kind of walks off stage. In Steep Theatre’s growing role as a testing ground for new plays from Chicago’s most promising playwrights, The Leopard Play is just the second commission. I look forward to seeing how Isaac Gomez’s already strong script grows between now and its inevitable second production.
Sebastian Arboleda, Other Uncle
Alec Coles Perez, Boy
Eduardo Curley-Carrillo, Uncle
Arash Fakhrabadi, Older Brother
Dennis Garcia, Other Other Uncle
Victor Maraña, Dad
Juan Muñoz, Little Brother, Strange Man, Bartender
Brandon Rivera, Son
Isaac Gomez, Playwright
Laura Alcalá Baker, Director
Jon Ravenscroft, Stage Manager
Arnel Sancianco, Set Designer
Alexander Ridgers, Lighting Designer
Thomas Dixon, Sound Designer
Uriel Gomez, Costume Designer
Emma Cullimore, Props Designer
Micah Figueroa, Intimacy & Violence Director
Breon Arzell, Choreographer
Lucas Garcia, Dramaturg
Catherine Allen, Production Manager
Evan Sposato, Technical Director
Ismael Lara, Assistant Director
Lee Miller, Photography