Copping to her fashion juju at curtain rise, amid a litany of designer labels rattled off at the audience, Fe, the heroine of the sordid story to follow, makes a pretense of having broken the solemn rules of drama by giving her big secret away at the outset. In fact, there's plenty of mystery yet in this intriguingly mercurial, restless hedonist (played by a charismatic, unstoppable Margo Hall), who anyway reverses herself in the next line when she coyly concedes the covert nature of her splendid appearance. "Face? François Nars. You can never go wrong with the French. François's motto? 'Makeup is not a mask.' A load of tired crap, but I forgive him."
We never get more than a glimpse behind Fe's mask, but then, appearances are what count for all and nothing in Fe in the Desert, the latest world premiere collaboration between Philippine-born American playwright, novelist, poet, and performance artist Jessica Hagedorn and Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts. After the outwardly fearless but inwardly insecure title character reveals her deceptive fabulousness, she seeks the psychological safety of her estranged husband's brand-new Cadillac Escalade, with its aloof suspension and promise of indestructibility, as she drives to their desert home.
Narrowly avoiding a head-on with a meat truck, Fe nearly loses her life. This puts her in an existentially acute mood for the duration of her subsequent adventure-nightmare in a seemingly empty Mojave, where she and husband Bill (a coolly flamboyant, then persuasively unhinged Danny Wolohan) are interrupted in their shaky reconciliation by two armed intruders. But even that irony is no proof against the power of the all-American Caddy to ward off bad spirits. The juju of the mighty Escalade and of the general wealth of Fe's ultimately helpless epicurean husband, and of showbiz, whose allure also figures significantly, if somewhat obliquely, in the narrative may falter, but never dies.
The prequel to 2005's Tenderloin-set Stairway to Heaven, also launched with Campo Santo, Fe in the Desert cunningly puts the usual codes of identity in playful motion (with their hierarchy of class, gender, and ethnic markers) to explore the deeper social and cultural context of Fe's existential crisis. Indeed, the play's spacious and opulent setting (as well as its predominantly comic mode) offers a seemingly stark contrast to Stairway's grim inner-city tale but in fact provides no escape from the same world of contradictions, which dramatically swoop down on the reconciling couple in the form of ex-cons Tyrone (a sophisticated sociopath with a thing for good English, smoothly played by Robert Hampton) and his volatile ghetto-Pygmalion protégé, Mook (a credibly wild Jonsen Vitug). On their trail follows an unlikely rescue party made up of a producer (Michael Torres, in an amusingly sly turn) and his foreign-born secretary (a solid Sara Hernandez).
The American desert here is at once full and all-encompassing, being the desert of capitalism, consumerism, haute culture, pop culture, and the Hollywood dream factory. This soup of oneiric consumption tends to undermine any hard-and-fast identity, including those cast in multiethnic hyphenates and hoary stereotypes. Instead, various strands of the cultures still referred to as high and low flow into one another with abandon, sometimes comically, sometimes violently, but always ecstatically.
That slipperiness partly excuses the rather thin construction of some of the play's characters, but only partly, in a production that provides little real punch despite high-octane performances and director Danny Scheie's ever-inspired staging of a story that loops repeatedly back in time, confutf8g multiple perspectives on the same horrific and absurd encounter.