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Review: Fresno State’s thoughtful ‘Agony of Ecstasy’ finds a metaphor in a mustache, then chomps down on gender roles and more

Two streaming performances remain of Fresno State’s digital production of “The Agony of Ecstasy,” a curious and biting (pun intended) 1977 collection of short plays by the noted Mexican playwright Sabina Berman. Though Adam Versenyí published a translation in 2002, the play is rarely performed in English. (Online, I couldn’t find a reference to a full U.S. production.) This is an example of one of the great benefits of university theater: You get to see works that you wouldn’t likely bump into at your local community theater. Directed by Gina Sandí-Díaz (the Latinx theater specialist at Fresno State), “The Agony of Ecstasy” pushes boundaries — both intellectually and viscerally.

Indeed, there are moments that bleat out in provocation.

Pictured above: Cynthia Carranza and Andrew Trevino are featured in ‘The Agony of Ecstasy.’  Photo: Fresno State

In the first playlet, titled “The Mustache,” sexual ambiguity reigns as a man (Krishan Joshi) and woman (Alexis Gonzales), married to each other, deliberate on the gender-performance parameters of their seemingly open relationship. As the man graphically recounts, with anatomical precision, the details of an extramarital romp, I was struck with a mental image: a live audience filled with a passel of Fresno State administrators nervously shifting in their seats. (And I smiled.) Digital does have its advantages.

The playlet’s gimmick is a detachable, communal mustache. The woman uses it as a sort of protective talisman against unwanted sexual advances. The man uses it to increase his attractiveness to the opposite sex. Androgyny, bisexuality and the age-old double standard (males are expected to wander, women remain chaste and faithful) are woven into the couple’s conversation.

I am intrigued and provoked by “The Mustache,” not so much because of Berman’s take on gender fluidity, but more because of what her bristly metaphor says about the role of machismo. (And not just specifically in Latino cultures.) While we think of American society as having shifted vastly since the 1970s in terms of a balance between the sexes, I think it’s safe to say that old-fashioned gender roles are still dominant in many families. (Take a local poll on who does the housework and cooking.) Berman thrusts the mustache into the mix with great finesse, brandishing it with delight.

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Still, my response to the script and the Fresno State production is mixed. Some of the material is startling; other parts feel stilted. The next two playlets, ““The Love Nest” (about a wealthy, philandering man bantering with his mistress) and “The Pistol” (about a man who brings home an unwelcome present to his skittish wife) are more obvious and less interesting.


Related story: Preview: With a Mexican flavor, Fresno State production of ‘The Agony of Ecstasy’ explores gender roles and sexuality

Yet the fourth and final playlet blusters onto the scene with great humor (and pain). “Teeth” takes place visually from the perspective of a patient’s open mouth. (How this is achieved in a regular theater production is hard to imagine; I’d love to see a director pull that off.) The most absurdist offering of the lot, “Teeth’s” series of vignettes — featuring Joshua Clark as the dentist and Emily King as his assistant — unleash a stream of saliva banter and bad-dentist scenarios, all from the point of view of the patient, who may or may not be hallucinating.

Pain is easy to experience. And it’s easy to inflict. The hard part, the play seems to suggest, is tracking down the specific source of that pain. (We’re told that every tooth has a nerve with the potential to cause great distress, which seems a particularly pessimistic view of life, but when you’re brutalized by totalitarian governments, or subjugated because of your gender, perhaps a dour outlook is justified.) Berman’s script is punctuated with spiffy non sequiturs (my favorite line: “His wife is his sister,” which made me laugh out loud). Sandi-Diaz coaxes fine, deadpan performances from her periodontal punishers.


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What would all this have been like with a live production? We’ll never know, but I salute Sandi-Diaz for her efforts to give the digital production a distinctive sheen. From the transitional dance sequences between segments to the brightly colored set pieces, there is a strong and consistent artistic imprint on the show.

Yet for all its focus on gender roles and sexuality — a pair of hot-topic themes in contemporary American society that you’d expect to have great resonance — there can be something oddly detached about “The Agony of Ecstasy.” It feels a bit like a museum piece. A prescient museum piece, to be sure, but still something flat and distant. Part of this might be the filmed format in which it’s presented; I felt removed from these weird, struggling characters. Part may simply be my own impatience at spending more than 400 days watching theatrical moments unfold on flat screens; I’ve lost some of the benevolence I felt in the early days of the pandemic toward any kind of art that got thrown at me, screen or not.

Or maybe it’s because I’m going to the dentist next week and am a little scared.

Whatever the case, “The Agony of Ecstasy” drills down. And hits some nerves.


Show info

The Agony of Ecstasy, a Fresno State streaming production. Continues 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 14, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 15. Tickets are is $15 general and $10 students; available at: http://www.fresnostate.edu/theatrearts.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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