As surreal theater goes, the first 15 minutes of José Rivera's new play, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, aren't that surreal. You've got a human-size coyote salivating over the thought of mounting a human-size house cat, a mustachioed moon playing a violin and dissing William Shakespeare, a gun-toting Barstow Army housewife looking for vampires, and a teenage Mexican-American boy next door begging her to help him come into his manhood. Okay, it's weird, but it's not exceptionally far-out compared with any number of experimental plays over the years.
But after this off-center prelude, Rivera's play settles into fairly typical territory—a marriage on the rocks. Set on an Army base in Barstow, the play involves a woman who feels as if her voice, if not her very soul, is slowly being strangled by military life and her husband, who loves her deeply—but possibly not as much as he loves the idea of being in the Army.
What makes this play intriguing is that Rivera approaches this well-trod dramatic ground in highly inventive, poetic fashion, creating a richly stylized theatrical vocabulary that is sensual and poignant, burning with desire, desperation and heartache.
Director Juliette Carrillo is the equal of Rivera's imaginative script, displaying a deft, fluid touch. She keeps the play moving briskly and engagingly through some of the wordier parts, eliciting strong performances from her two leads: Ana Ortiz (Gabriela) and Robert Montano (Martin).
The questions Rivera asks throughout his play are intriguing as well, particularly what seems his most urgent question: How essential is imagination in sustaining a relationship and the human psyche? As Diane DiPrima wrote many years ago, the only war worth waging is the war against the imagination. And based on this play, a small battle on the righteous side of that war has been won.
References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Feb. 27. $26-$45.