The trio of brothers in Teo Castellanos’ Third Trinity seem anything but sacred for most of this powerful solo play. But the journeys Castellanos brings to rich life in this pungent, personal show, which premiered Friday night at the Miami Light Project’s space in Wynwood, do arrive at a kind of salvation.
The story of Third Trinity is one of those improbable tales that could only come from real life, packed with violence, self-destructiveness, bitter absurdity, and, finally, self-determination. After their mother is murdered, Castellanos’ cousins Jesus and Larry come to live with their aunt in Puerto Rico, and the three boys are raised as brothers. Jesus becomes a Puerto Rican nationalist on the island, Larry a drug dealer in Miami, and little Timoteo a hard-partying drug addict with improbable dreams of being an artist.
Castellanos first wrote Trinity as a screenplay, and he has kept the format’s episodic structure and flat, specific scene set-ups. "Montage. Cut. Repeat" he intones, as he describes Larry’s coke-and-sex-fueled speedboat trips to the Bahamas to pick up drugs. He punches this up with gorgeously vivid language and dry irony. Larry and a drug dealing mentor meet in a car where "the sun streams through the window, making them feel like display case pastelitos." The family moves to Miami’s Carol City "sister city to the South Bronx."
Barefoot in white pants and t-shirt, Castellanos slips seamlessly into the characters around the three brothers: a Cuban boat factory owner who launches Larry into dealing, a hapless friend who suggests Teo become a Tarzan-costumed stripper, a girlfriend who spars with Jesus over revolutionary doctrine – as well as the spirit of a dead grandmother who acts as omniscient narrator and worried commentator. It’s a virtuoso performance – Castellanos nails the punchy rhythm of a Miami Cuban accent; frenzied Puerto Rican Spanglish; the casual stream of obscenities; the grandmother’s coy, elegant femininity; a certain languid, menacing machismo.
But Castellanos never plays the three brothers. We get to know them through the narration, the scenic description, the other characters – putting their often devastating stories at a remove, impact accumulating piece by cool piece.
Dramaturge and director Tarell Alvin McCraney orchestrates Trinity’s many elements into a fluid, beautifully constructed whole. Castellanos was the first theater teacher and mentor to McCraney, who grew up in Liberty City and is now an acclaimed playwright and director. Their shared history with theater, both artistically and as an escape route from destructive street life, is apparent here. Andrew Yeomanson (better known as DJ Le Spam) provides a culturally pitch-perfect soundtrack of salsa, funk, punk and new wave that helps take us from the 60’s through the 80’s. Production designer Erik Pearson’s minimal set includes a heavenly mountain of a white skirt for the grandmother and a large frame for old family snapshots or stark, color saturated photos of Miami buildings. Everything – the slang, the languages, the personalities, the images, the music – fits together in an intricate construction that feels completely natural.
Third Trinity is Castellanos’ first solo piece since his career-launching NE 2nd Avenue over a decade ago, and by far his most personally revealing show. Much of what he shows about his youth, like an episode where he begs a lascivious dealer for drugs, is very dark and not at all flattering. But by showing us these three brothers’ chaotic, even tragic lives in such unflinching detail, and how they struggle to control their destiny and find purpose – which Teo discovers in theater - Castellanos and McCraney also show us the power of art.
If you go
What: Third Trinity
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Monday, and Oct. 16 to 18.
Where: The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 N.W. 26 St., Miami
Info: $25, $15 for students and seniors; miamilightproject.com or 305-576-4350