Lev and Marisa are a young, interracial couple with money—well, Marisa’s father’s money, anyway. Delighted to start a new chapter of their lives (and hoping that living together will smooth over the rockiness of their relationship), they move into a home previously occupied by a Mexican family who lived there for decades before rising costs of living pushed them out. But all is not as peachy as it seems in their new place, as what at first can be written off as electrical issues or the old building “settling” reveals itself to be something much more sinister in The Displaced, a world premiere written by Isaac Gomez and directed by Jo Cattell.
Consider the coconut. In the synopsis provided by Haven Theatre, the appearance of a mysterious coconut seems to be the inciting incident that leads Marisa and Lev down a dark path laid out for them by the previous tenants, but the coconut doesn’t appear until an hour and thirteen minutes into an hour and forty minute show (yes, I timed it). Like in any good horror story, the horrific elements appear gradually and grow more and more intense as the story goes on; the coconut is significant, sure, but no more unsettling than the flying books or possessed smart speaker that arrive first. It’s a picky critique, I know, but the synopsis had me impatiently waiting for the coconut’s arrival instead of focusing on the other increasingly creepy aspects of the apartment.
There are really three threads to follow here: Marisa and Lev’s relationship, which fluctuates quickly and frequently between sweetness, lust, and arguing (emphasis on the arguing); discussion of race and gentrification—can Lev, a black man, and Marisa, a Mexican woman, be complicit in what is largely a white phenomenon?; and the horror story. Frankly, the relationship is the least interesting of the three: straight couples arguing is hardly new subject matter for theatre, and I feel the need to state it in print, because someone has to: Cheating is the easiest and most boring conflict possible between fictional couples.
The discussion of gentrification and how Marisa and Lev live their separate identities as people of color is much more interesting, even if it does feel a little inorganic at times. The story’s biggest strength comes in the horror elements, particularly the ways they tie into Mexican cultural tradition, the central theme of gentrification, and stories from both Marisa and Lev’s pasts. If the couple’s tiresome arguments are well-trod territory, the new ground being broken in this show is the centering of the experiences of people of color in a genre that is too often and too overwhelmingly white.
It’s hard to present a good horror story without some really fantastic design elements, and The Displaced absolutely has them. Lights by Erik S. Barry and sound by Sarah D. Espinoza are crucial to creating an unsettling and increasingly hostile atmosphere, and props by Emily Boyd burst at the seams with those little details that stick in your mind—aged tarot cards and a partially dismembered chicken struck me as especially creepy. The realms of rigging, violence, and intimacy design are combined and designed by Rachel Flesher and Zack Payne. Flesher, who was responsible for a hilarious and brilliantly executed live threesome in Women Laughing Alone with Salad, has done excellent work here as well; the violence in particularly is startlingly realistic. I appreciated, as well, that the technicians were sent out for recognition during bows.
The real crown jewel of the play, though, is Karen Rodriguez’s performance as Marisa. Fresh off a run as the absurdly oversexual Marina in Steppenwolf’s critically acclaimed (at least by this critic) production of The Doppelgänger, Rodriguez has fan-fucking-tastic comedic timing, delivering funny line after funny line with a punch that is not easily forgotten. On the flip side, she can also be utterly and totally terrifying, and the transformation from one vibe to the other is instantaneous and impressive.
Despite my lack of interest in the characters’ relationship drama, I really enjoyed being terrified by The Displaced. This is horror with a social justice bent, and that combination is a powerful one.
Location: The Den Theatre’s Bookspan Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Dates: Thursday, June 7 – Sunday, March 11, 2018
Curtain Times: Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 3 pm.
Tickets: $20. Tickets on sale at the Haven Theatre website.
All photos by Austin D. Oie unless otherwise indicated.