Friday, June 4, 2010

Ojala! By Jennifer Berry

By Joe Straw

The street theatre in Boyle Heights is, in some ways, an arranged overture to the main event at Casa 0101 Theatre. The blinding sunlight along 1st Street makes one have golden blink shots or tiny glimpses of multiple scenes on the street.   

Friday night - the street - not dirt free.  Is Monday – long since past - cleaning day?  - Parking meters on the street - available? – Our luck  - a spot, spotted across the street! 

Feeding the meter – a few coins - timed – after eight, safe.  Jaywalking across the street - to the theatre – too early? – Walk to the corner – sidewalk filled with pedestrians - become one with the live set – notice the police station – white and blinding walls - and a church – white and blinding - feel safe? - Come on back – Casa 0101 calls – a Latino man walking toward us from the alley – pulling something from his jacket - with him his menacing young son, eating in ice cream – walking closely, adoringly.

Next door – to Casa 0101 - a convenient store – beer on sale – cashier not Latino – biding his time – taking your money.  Grunts - as a “thank you”.

Can you take a moment to feel your life?

Casa 0101 Theatre is presenting Ojala! a new play by Jennifer Berry and directed by Elizabeth Otero de Espinoza.  Based on the life of Manuela Dones, it is a life’s celebration from the period 1965 through 1968 in East L.A. and Pasadena. How one celebrates life in Boyle Heights or Pasadena for that matter is certainly a matter of personal preference.

Oh, but life, with its inherent triumphs and tragedies is riddled with conflict. The secret is to get out with a lot of mistakes (learning as you go) and a minimal amount of tragedies. 

The story starts off with two young women in very similar circumstances. Katherine (Lindsay Lane) a rich Catholic girl trying her best to avoid her mother, Mrs. Kenderson (Jillann Gabrielle), and waiting for the curtain to fall on her young life.  

On the other side of town, in East L.A., Manuela (Claudia Duran) excited about young love wants to solidify her relationship with her boyfriend Jose (Dave Trejo).

As the play cuts back and forth we find both young women are pregnant.

Worlds collapse.  

Katherine wants to get rid of the baby while her mother wants her to keep it. In fact she threatens Katherine with no money from her sizable inheritance unless she has the baby.

On the other side of town Manuela is taken aback by Jose’s lack of interest in family life and finds that Jose is only devoted to his career as a future LAPD officer: one of the first Latino cops in the city.   He doesn’t want the baby and doesn’t want to get married.

Together the young women pray alone on stage. They pray for the right answers. Manuela prays for the health of the baby while Katherine produces a coat hangar. As Katherine tries to terminate the pregnancy, Manuela loses her baby.

Katherine’s baby is born perfectly healthy while Manuela loses her and her ability to have children.

Manuela living with Rosa (Julia Sanchez) is asked to leave because there’s no room for her in their house anymore.  Rosa has another one on the way and… But Rosa takes her to a Katherine’s house to take care of her baby and tells her not to lose this job.

The gardeners (Victor Lopez and Pedro Lopez) take a very nice interest in the new girls coming to work at the house.

Manuela is immediately smitten while Katherine doesn’t want to look at her baby.

Manuela takes the baby out to meet the other Latino maids from the neighborhood, Anita (Sheila Korsi), Pancha (Carmelita Maldonado), and Cruz (Diana Mera).   They sit, gossip and become good friends.

Jose and Inspector Ramsey (Joel Zaldivar) discuss what it means to be a cop in Los Angeles and that means arresting the Mexicans who are causing all of the trouble.  (Yes, I think there’s a touch of racism here.) Jose takes offense and indicates he will arrest those that are guilty.

In the meantime Manuela and Katherine become friends and Manuela brings mother and daughter closer.  It is at this time Katherine starts seeing a man, Bill (also Joel Zaldivar), falls in love with him and later finds out that he is a – well, I should stop now. 

This is a very fine cast with superb performances all around.

Duran is engaging as Manuela. Strong in spirit and faithful to her new found family.  Willing to speak the truth no matter how much it hurts. Desperation does not play a role here, but why not?  When she steals and runs to her friends she needs to convince her friends to help her all costs.

Lane as Katherine takes a while to warms up to.  After all she’s the rich white lady but gradually we do warm to her and it is a very nice performance. 

Gabrielle as Mrs. Kenderson is a pretty tough rich woman.  The performance is wonderful and suitably perfect for the times.  Hair, clothes, and makeup from the sixties are all details in her character that all worked.  This was a superb performance.

A statuesque Trejo as Jose seems to tower over the rest of the cast. He recognizes the conflict in his role, in fact it comes too easily, but his voice is in need of further development so it does not seemed pushed, but layered.  Relax, concentrate and wait for the emotions from the heart to reach out and make a point.  Also, find the core of the police officer. Nevertheless, it is a fine performance.

Mera as Cruz plays to the very core of our being.  She sings a number in this play. It is sweet and melodious, carefully crafted to tear at the heartstrings and reminds us about the humans that are enslaved by the law of the land, both yesterday and today.

Korsi as Anita was as wonderful as they come.  What a joy to see a supporting player giving her best and not giving an inch until it’s time to swim naked with the gardener, defiantly, and with a little trepidation.

Zaldivar as Inspector Ramsey and Bill didn’t fool anyone with the fake mustache and the costume change but nevertheless did a very good job in both roles.  Certainly there is a manner to police officers that was not quite captured and needs development but the character Bill was quite nice (In a despicable way.)

There is a father son team in this play as the gardeners Pedro Lopez and Victor Lopez. Both were quite charming.  Victor, the son, with a strong voice, plays the fool at times, which was confusing and possibly stereotypic. His objective leads him nowhere and probably a path he should not follow. And, on the other hand, Pedro, the father, finally finds the love of his life, at least for this particular moment, and was engaging.  Both should work harder on their objectives, to make more of this life on stage. 

Rounding out the cast are Maldonado as Pancha and Sanchez as Rosa both quite good in their roles.

Jennifer Berry, the writer, captures the mood and time of Southern California in 1965.  There are a few problems that can be overlooked. For example, the time period takes place over three years and the baby never grows beyond infant stage. Also, when Manuela runs away she has nowhere to go and no one to help her.  It’s a moment on stage that needs to bring us to our knees with empathy.

Elizabeth Orero de Espinoza, the director, does a fine job but needs to find those moments that elevate the play.  There is more life here that can be explored.  Still, this is a mostly Latino cast working hard and filling the moments that were unexpectedly joyous to watch.

Functional Set Design by Marco De Leon and wonderful Costume Design by Monica Hernandez.

Ends this weekend.

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