Theatre Rhinoceros is no stranger to the Bay Area theater scene. Founded in 1977 and recognized in 2008 as the longest-running professional queer theater in the U.S. by former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, who is now the California governor. The Rhino has been uplifting the voices of the queer community for decades, and its 2019-20 season is no exception. In a small studio sitting in the heart of the Castro, the theater organization recently launched the premiere of “Driven,” a powerful new play by Boni Alvarez.
“Driven” follows the story of a young Pilipinx American actor, Danny (Earl Paus), as he returns to his hometown of East Palo Alto to visit his father, Arnel (Alan Quismorio), who continues to struggle with his drinking and gambling habits. The two are soon joined by the lovable Qulie (Héctor Ramón Zavala), a childhood friend who hits it off with Danny and adds a relaxed and almost buoyant perspective to the mix. The most intriguing part, however, is that almost all of the scenes, with a few notable exceptions, take place in a car, as the characters drive each other around.
One might expect that a play about talking to your dad as you drive him to work could soon turn boring or become stifled. “Driven” is anything but. Instead, these everyday conversations are a window that allows the audience a glimpse into life’s blunt and raw realities. There’s something so quintessentially relatable that Alvarez manages to capture in his writing; the play really does feel like a series of conversations that one might hear from the backseat of a car or perhaps a particularly tense Uber.
It’s these little details and idiosyncrasies that hold the play together, such as the way that Danny and Arnel can go from cracking jokes to arguing with each other in mere seconds — an almost uncomfortably familiar scene to many parent-child duos. At one point, the two even find time to break up a particularly heavy fight with a singalong session to the radio, and the audience is left both laughing and reeling from the earlier tension.
Driving this comedic spirit is Quismorio in the role of Arnel. While Arnel may be the cause of much of the play’s conflict, in all his stubborn glory, he is also the source of some of its funniest moments. Quismorio is an absolute delight to watch onstage, whether he’s bragging about his moves (complete with a little happy dance) or doing his best “The Walking Dead” zombie impersonation.
Despite being presented as a comedy, however, “Driven” is also a family and relationship drama at heart, and that means it examines all of the flaws and fears that hold people together. The play is centered around the queer identity and the Pilipinx American experience, but Alvarez also touches on everything from addiction to police misconduct to the soul-sucking pit that is Hollywood. These themes are, thankfully, made more digestible by the lovable humor that seems to define the play, but that doesn’t mean that “Driven” can’t still throw a killer emotional punch.
Paus in particular shines as the pessimistic and confused Danny. Paired with two talented comedic actors, Paus grounds the play in its emotional reality — somewhat ironically, as his character is the most likely to spiral out of control. One of the most heartbreaking moments onstage comes when Danny abruptly gets out of the car and begins to experience a panic attack. Suffice it to say, the image of a young man on the side of the road, trying and failing to hold it together, as his father shouts at him and his boyfriend tries to keep the peace, isn’t easy to forget.
All in all, Alvarez’s play is charming, engaging and full of heart, giving sufficient weight to heavy topics without overwhelming its audience. It’s a testament to the powerful sincerity of queer and diverse theater, and one can only hope that the rest of the Bay Area theater scene can rise to that level.
Lauren Sheehan-Clark covers theater and literature. Contact her at [email protected].