Review: In Man Cave, Brujas Gather in a Congressman's Basement to Summon the Dead
Magic and history converge in John J. Caswell Jr.'s world premiere play.
It is one of the great ironies of theatergoing in 2022 that while the front of house has thrown its full weight behind masking and vaccines — the theater trusts the science — the stage itself increasingly plays host to tales of superstition and witchcraft. This was true before the pandemic, with Alexis Scheer's Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, but the trend seems to have intensified this season with Clare Barron's Shhh and now, John J. Caswell Jr.'s Man Cave, a kind of indie horror movie now being staged by Page 73 at the Connelly Theater.
It's about a makeshift coven of Mexican American women summoning the dead to do their bidding from the basement lair of an Arizona congressman (it is never specified whether he is a Republican or a Democrat). Imaculada (Annie Henk) is the housekeeper, left alone to keep the house while the congressman is in Washington. On one such occasion, Rosemary (Jacqueline Guillén) shows up with her lover, Lupita (Claudia Acosta), seeking shelter after her cop boyfriend (with whom she cohabits) beats her up.
In an illustration of Charles Ludlam's adage "You are a living mockery of your own ideals," Rosemary is aggressively woke and disdainful of this refuge. When Imaculada remarks that the congressman is merely serving the will of his constituents, Rosemary redundantly retorts, "Yeah, bent over the lectern taking all two inches of white supremacy's cheesy smegma-covered cock."
Even in the face of such hostility, Imaculada allows them to sleep in the man cave for just one night. But Rosemary has other plans that involve human toenails, goat blood, and a request that the spirits murder her boyfriend. She only becomes more determined when she learns that the congressman's house has been built on top of a mass grave of indigenous people.
Questions swirl: Why does Rosemary sit for hours covered in her own dried blood when there's a perfectly good bathroom just steps away? Why, when we are told there are security cameras everywhere, does Imaculada think they can stay unnoticed? And why doesn't she even bat an eye when Rosemary, already quite inebriated, goes straight for the bottle of Lagavulin hiding behind the bar? The events of the first act strain credulity, making it much harder to accept the magic in the second.
That doesn't mean that it's not impressively rendered. Man Cave has been given a top-notch production under the direction of Taylor Reynolds, whose mastery of surprise has viewers involuntarily flinching in their seats. Inanimate objects seem to move on their own on Adam Rigg's shifty set, while Lucrecia Briceno's lighting maintains a level of dimness that allows us to see the performers while still wondering what's hiding behind the washing machine. Michael Costagliola's 360-degree sound design seems to invade our personal space, making us anxious that someone (or something) could come up behind us at any moment.
The entire cast goes the extra mile to sell these effects and paper over the holes in the script. Guillén works hard to add dimensions to a character that is essentially a living, breathing Twitter feed. And Socorro Santiago (who arrives later as Rosemary's mother) brings a witchy energy to the stage that is still grounded in the mundane.
Much of it is unsettling in a manner reminiscent of the collaboration of Adam Bock and director Anne Kauffman on plays like The Thugs and A Life. Of course, both of those scripts deftly dance the burlesque of horror, the playwright understanding that few things are more terrifying than the unseen and unexplained. Man Cave, on the other hand, is unfailingly superficial.
And for some people (especially fans of The Exorcist and the Amityville Horror franchise) that will do the trick: I witnessed one member of the audience begin to hyperventilate before being escorted to the lobby, perhaps overwhelmed with terror. Personally, I found most of it pretty cheesy — not as much, though, as the aforementioned phallus.
Caswell raises urgently important topics: domestic violence, the abuse of police authority, the ever-expanding Department of Homeland Security, and the cynical way that politicians profit from it. But anyone who cares about these issues should be dismayed by the not-very-helpful solution the theater is increasingly offering in response…magic.