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John Ortiz and Rosie Perez: Accidental Actors


April 8, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

IF geography and background are destiny, then John Ortiz and Rosie Perez should have met long ago. Both are Brooklyn natives in their 30's. The two self-described accidental actors also have family roots in the same small oceanside town of Aguadilla in the extreme northwest of Puerto Rico.

Yet, as Ms. Perez puts it lightly, "I'm getting to know him." That's the chaste, schoolgirl description of the combustible relationship that the two actors grope with onstage – between tangled white sheets – when war comes home from the Gulf desert to a Barstow, Calif., bedroom.

In José Rivera's New York premiere of "References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot," which opens tomorrow at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, Ms. Perez plays Gabriela, an alienated soldier's wife who resents the military's grip on her husband and their lives. Mr. Ortiz's uniformed Benito is counting the years to his pension and wrestling with gulf war demons in his dreams.

The tensions and desires present in their long marriage are underlined in emotional kitchen confrontations and echoed, to some extent, in surrealistic outdoor scenes involving the unlikely liaison of a wild coyote and a spoiled, well-fed housecat. Presiding over the latter is a man in white who represents the moon – a moon that at one point tries to seduce Gabriela by mentioning a painting. Her response is the play's title.

Ms. Perez said she decided to take the part despite qualms earlier in her career about appearing onstage because she didn't feel prepared. A one-time Soul Train dancer and a choreographer for the comedy series "In Living Color," Ms. Perez got her first acting role when Spike Lee cast her in his 1989 movie "Do the Right Thing."

"It's a bit unnerving to be thrown into acting when you had no aspirations to be an actress," she said recently, adding that she felt prepared for her current role because of a short stint in Eve Ensler's "Vagina Monologues" as well as a series of readings of "Borrowed Light," writings by women in prison, along with a concert performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"I felt ready," she said. "I felt I had matured as an actress, and Shakespeare really primed me for this play. I feel confident now, and I'm sure I'm going to make my way and maybe stub my toe now and then."

Ms. Perez and Mr. Ortiz were cast without an audition. George C. Wolfe, the producer of the Public, had urged Ms. Perez to take the role, while Mr. Ortiz had a long association with the playwright.

The play's director, Jo Bonney, said that to a certain extent Mr. Rivera, the author also of "Cloud Tectonics" and "Sueño," wrote with "John Ortiz's voice in his head." During readings in Minneapolis, she said, the play gradually evolved. "José did quite a lot of work on Gabriela, making her story a little clearer and a little stronger."

To create the soldier character, Mr. Rivera drew on the experiences of his four brothers who were in the military. Mr. Ortiz also turned to one of Mr. Rivera's brothers, Tony, for advice on his portrayal of the wisecracking, cynical soldier who is so unnerved by his war experiences that he lunges at his wife when she tries to wake him.

"We've been doing this play now for two years, in a sense, through workshops and readings, and I'm really familiar with it," Mr. Ortiz said. "Benito is different from me. This character is somebody who has always known what he wanted, and I'm really free-spirited."

Mr. Ortiz currently has a television role as a young street detective in a new ABC show called "The Job" with Denis Leary. "The Job," he said, offers a completely different pace. "In television it's lucky if I get a deep experience because it's so rushed," he said. "For theater, you're in rehearsals so long, and you have this daily connection with a hundred people in the house. It lives with you in a deeper way, and it takes longer to let go of it. It's kind of in your bones."

With his razor cut for the part of Benito, Mr. Ortiz said, friends sometimes don't recognize him. The experience reminds him of his last role, in "Jesus Hopped the `A' Train," a prison drama presented earlier this season by the Labyrinth Theater Company, which the actor helped found. "When I was doing that," he said, "I was a mess. I was walking around in Rikers Island in my mind the whole time."

But this time, he lifted his gym bag with a military bearing: "I am this other person. I really am."   

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