In Paper Flowers, the rarely produced masterwork of Chilean playwright Égon Wolff, one of the two characters is simply called The Hake. That's a nasty-looking fish with a huge mouthful of teeth that hunts deep in the Pacific to feed its voracious appetite, the program notes tell us. Christopher Carlos is the opposite of nasty-looking, but his Hake is nonetheless a predator that's circling its next prey in Kitchen Dog Theater's tense and darkly beautiful production.
Carlos and Christie Vela not only co-star but co-direct, working in tandem onstage and off. This unusual approach yields a deeper exploration of Wolff's poetic script — which is translated by the award-winning Margaret Peden — allowing both Vela and Carlos to be firmly entrenched in their characters and the strange situation that they create. Because that's what this odd yet fascinating play hinges on: we must empathize with these two people, otherwise it's impossible to go on their strange journey.
The play spans just three days, told in six scenes with two five-minute intermissions. That's enough time for the stage crew to continually alter Jeffrey Schmidt's set, which reveals a chilling surprise at the finale. But at the start the setting is the nondescript apartment of Eva, a lonely woman in her 40s who has taken pity on a homeless man and paid him to carry up her groceries.
She offers him money while trying to usher him out, but he plays to her sympathies and supplies a (possibly fake) reason why it would be dangerous for him to leave right then. So she feeds him soup and attempts conversation while they wait. Before you know it, she's drawing him a bath and unrolling blankets for him to spend the night on the floor. To repay her charity, The Hake demonstrates how to turn newspaper into the paper flowers of the play's title, eventually spreading them around her apartment like a fast-growing fungus.
Wolff tantalizingly drops in lines that are meant to unsettle, then expertly brushes them away with Eva's polite responses. We know right from the start that something is off about The Hake, but it's hard to pin down exactly what. Like Eva, we're so drawn in by his charm and hobbled by our innate urge to be polite that it's easy to ignore the hints.
Carlos keeps his performance humming with nervous energy and irresistible confidence. He may be dirty and scrubby, but there's something undeniably attractive about him, to which Eva is all too ready to respond. There is also an air of mystery about Eva, as she slowly reveals how her life has shrunk since her husband's abandonment. But Vela doesn't let Eva become a sad-and-single cliché; instead she concentrates on the character's people-pleasing tendencies to explain why the woman is so malleable.
It's to Carlos and Vela's credit — both as actors and directors — that dismissing the bizarre dance between Eva and The Hake is impossible. The more frightening and outrageous their situation becomes, the more we cling to that thread of relatability they keep dangling. We all know the feeling of being manipulated, even if at first it's unrecognizable.
Kitchen Dog Theater's production of Paper Flowers runs through March 11 at the Trinity River Arts Center.