Octavio Solis Has Created a New ‘Juan’ : His ‘Man of the Flesh’ Is No Privileged Grandee
Although South Coast Repertory is touting Octavio Solis’ “Man of the Flesh” as a Chicano satire of the Don Juan myth, the playwright is not sure he likes the description.
“I have problems with the word Chicano ,” said Solis, whose play opens tonight on the SCR Second Stage. “It sounds like a dated term that reflects a very active political movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. That’s what produced the word Chicano. I just think of myself as a Mexican-American.”
Besides, it’s not as though his writing has been devoted to ethnic material or, for that matter, even touched on it before. “Man of the Flesh,” developed at SCR’s Hispanic Playwrights Project, marks the first time.
“None of my plays really dealt with any Hispanic themes at all up to this one,” the 32-year-old El Paso, Tex., native said in a recent interview.
In fact, while Solis can speak and read Spanish, he adds that he is not literate in the language. Though he grew up speaking it at home, he not only has a scant Spanish vocabulary but he thinks in English now. After watching U.S. television throughout his childhood and being educated in public schools, he said, he can’t help considering English his mother tongue.
Why then the sudden burst of interest in the ethnic culture he seems to have left behind? In practical terms, “Man of the Flesh” was originally commissioned for Teatro Dallas in Texas, which was not exactly looking for an Anglo-style play. More philosophically, Solis said, “I had perhaps been ignoring things about myself and my background that I needed to give a second look.”
The Don Juan myth appealed to him in particular, he noted, because it persists in the Hispanic ethos as something that is both embraced and rejected. “We don’t like to think of the Latin lover or the Don Juanism or the machismo as being a prevalent force in our cultural makeup,” Solis asserted. “But it is a very strong force . . . it is an archetype.”
In doing his research for “Man of the Flesh,” Solis said, he discovered that virtually “every culture has its own manifestations of the Don Juan myth,” which is why artists as different from each other as Mozart, Shaw and Moliere have been able to make compelling use of it on the stage.
Solis decided to satirize the myth by deflating the traditional image of the rakish Don Juan figure as a privileged grandee. Thus, “Man of the Flesh” revolves around young Juan Tenorio, whose hard-working father operates the Pronto Lawn & Garden Service. And from a reading of the script, it would seem that Juan has hardly any redeeming virtues.
“A lot of the work I’m doing is parody,” Solis said. “I wanted to cast Don Juan as one of us, one of those Hispanics who has either recently arrived in this country or not been here past a generation. I thought it would be fun to have the noble, poetic cad in a position where he has to work his way up from the bottom of the ladder.”
If the power that Juan possesses over women in “Man of the Flesh” does not derive from position or personality, where does it come from?
“His passion,” the playwright says. “He claims he would rather be like everyone else. But when he sees women and they see him, there’s an uncontrollable urge” to devour each other. Juan also has a nasty tendency to threaten anyone who gets in his way--including his lovers--with exposure to immigration officials (“Why don’t I give INS a buzz? They might like to see who’s got their papers.”).
When not writing plays, Solis makes his living as a writer of video scenarios for an educational project in San Francisco, where he has lived since September after spending 10 years in Dallas. “We’re working on a teaching tool that uses interactive computer videos,” he explained. “The scenario has plot points that revolve around the player.”
In the meantime, he is also at work on a new play commissioned by SCR. As yet untitled, it deals with “chaos theory, which is a mathematical-scientific term for dynamical systems,” Solis said. “I’ve been interested in the subject for the last two or three years.”
Though the subject sounds rather obscure for the stage--not to mention dry and arcane--Solis is confident it can be dramatized by cradling it in a 20th-Century version of the Faustian myth, another archetypal story that runs through many Western cultures.
“There’s a bargain with the devil, but the devil is not a character or someone who is visible,” he pointed out. “In this case, the devil would be a radioactive isotope.”
“Man of the Flesh” opens today at 8:30 p.m. on South Coast Repertory’s Second Stage and runs through May 20. The theater is at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $18 to $25. Information: (714) 957-4033.