The play “Clean/Espejos” at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa dives into the cultural divide between resort guest and resort employee partly through a device that might startle some audience members at first: Dialogue is spoken in not one language but two.
Housekeeping manager Adriana speaks all her lines in Spanish. Canadian tourist Sarah speaks hers lines in English. Translations for both are integrated into the stage design as the two characters’ lives intertwine in Cancún, Mexico: Adriana, played by Lorena Martinez, has just found out that her father has died. Sarah, played by Nell Geisslinger, has arrived for her sister’s wedding but finds herself reminded of a haunting childhood incident.
Playwright Christine Quintana was inspired to write “Clean/Espejos” after visiting family members who work in the resort industry in Cancún and seeing firsthand what life is like for staff. The divide was jarring.
“I felt a lot of friction and thought about the whole idea of the resort being a fantasy of Mexico provided by these big, mostly American-owned resort companies,” Quintana said. “I jumped to thinking about the feeling of disembodiment and disassociation, feelings similar to dissociation from trauma. This setting seemed like the perfect backdrop to explore some ideas I’d been thinking about in terms of trauma and how the things that happen to us shape our lives for many, many years after.”
Quintana completed a draft within a month of returning to her home in Canada. She decided that if Adriana were to be a Mexican woman, she needed to speak her lines in Spanish. Because Quintana is not a fluent Spanish speaker, she reached out to Paula Zelaya Cervantes, a playwright and director from Mexico City whom she had met while they were both studying at the University of British Columbia. Quintana described Cervantes’ contributions as not just translation but also adaptation.
“At one point, I wrote that somebody knocks on the door,” Quintana said, adding that Cervantes suggested: “Well, actually, in this type of house in Mexico, in this area, they would ring the doorbell of a gate and someone would come get you.” Quintana said Cervantes helped fill in gaps that “someone from Vancouver wouldn’t know.”
Quintana and Cervantes also collaborated on the character of Adriana, making sure that her speech was reflective of a woman from Mexico specifically. “We really didn’t want to make it a generic multinational Spanish translation,” Quintana said. “We wanted a character that really sounds like the area where she’s from.”
Cervantes, who mostly translates the works of well-known playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Margaret Edson, loved the collaboration.
“I didn’t have to guess what the playwright would have wanted, because the playwright could tell me herself. It was constant communication,” Cervantes said. “Even when we had to alter the meaning of a line because it simply wouldn’t translate into Spanish naturally, I would describe the line’s ‘feeling’ to Christine and she would say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly it,’ and then I was able to create new lines that felt natural in Spanish and that still carried a similar atmosphere and texture as the English version.”
Once South Coast Repertory decided to stage a bilingual play (“Clean/Espejos” is part of the company’s Pacific Playwrights Festival), the most important detail that needed to be sorted out was the question of subtitles. Director Lisa Portes said she worked closely with scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge and production designer Yee Eun Nam to find a way to incorporate dialogue translations into the design.
“We decided we were going to create four panels that would be on tracks sliding back and forth,” Portes said. They created a band about nine feet up where titles are projected. “We really wanted to create dynamic subtitling and, again, make it part of the design, as opposed to something that is separate and would take the audience’s eyes away from the actors.”
With the titles locked in, “Clean/Espejos” became a theater experience equally accessible to Spanish and English speakers alike. Quintana couldn’t be happier to hear her play spoken in two languages.
“It’s a thrill to hear Spanish onstage,” Quintana said. “I really hope, as someone who mostly speaks English, that I get to see more bilingual, multilingual plays. I think about my life in Vancouver and how hearing Mandarin or Farsi on the street is part of my life. I would be so thrilled to see those languages onstage and get a chance to spend time with characters actually speaking in their own language.”
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; ends Sunday
Price: $60-$79; ages 25 and younger, $20
Running time: About two hours (including one intermission)
COVID-19 protocols: Proof of vaccination or negative PCR test is required for all. Masks are required. Safety procedures are posted on the theater website.