Sunday, December 4, 2011

Short Eyes by Miguel Piñero

By Joe Straw

I’ll be shot down by a police, who will say it’s a mistake, I accept it, as part of my destino… Sí, es mi destino morir en la calle como un perro… - Paco

During the course of the play, I heard some distracting noise at the end of my row, cup of water falling, something dripping or leaking, candy wrappers opening.  These were just annoying sounds one would hear in a prison detention center somewhere so I didn’t think much of it.  Leaving the theatre, I came to the seats at the end of my row to discover multiple Milky Way candy wrappers, plastics cups, and papers lying everywhere on the floor. (Wasn’t this where the producer, Paul Tully and director, Julian Acosta were sitting? One supposes nerves got the better of both of them on this opening night.)

Opening night played host to a very eclectic audience—I noted multiple body tattoos, even on women.  The playgoers were young, old, bald, thick, thin, tall, wide, short and slick, and there was an abundant amount of cleavage in lace.  Some patrons had lost teeth, others hair.  Some were wearing pristine graphic tees, ratty vintage shoes, and nice hats. This is the kind of audience you would expect to see at the play, Short Eyes by Miguel Piñero. 

Short Eyes, by Miguel Piñero and directed by Julian Acosta produced by the Urban Theatre Movement and the Latino Theater Company, is a play that never lets up.  From the very beginning, events tear the viewing soul into pieces. It is a play about criminals finding order in chaos. This is an inspired eclectic cast that moves past the mundane and creates a physical world beyond comprehension.  It is, in short, a wonderful production.  

Short Eyes is the story of thieves, adulterers, drug addicts, homosexuals, and lost men who can’t find ways of making things better – and those are the guards.  Lost further down and in the depths of hell are the criminals who are in detention (incarcerated), all with no idea as to the date of their release and with sharp divisions among their ranks.

As the play opens, there is a loud and disturbing gate buzz after the words “On the gate.” are spoken. It is a harsh buzz that grabs everyone within earshot and wakes him or her up into the harsh reality of life in jail.  The buzz is a primal jarring note that speaks to the perverted soul looking for order.  This buzz swathes us into the ambiance of absolute despair.  And in jail, despondency is the first order of being.

The play takes place in the day room of a nice enough floor of a county jail with a broken television set hanging above them.    Omar (Miguel Amenyinu), Longshoe (Mark Rolston), El Raheem (Donte Wince), Paco (Jason Manuel Olazabal), and Ice (Carl Crudup) watch Cupcakes (Matias Ponce) as he comes down the stairs with hoots and hollers much to the dismay of Juan (David Santana).

Cupcakes has a name.  It is Julio.  But the other men in the cell regard him as feminine and want a piece of him. (In the most appreciable jailhouse way.)  But Cupcakes tells them he is not “that way.” And yet, they stare hoping to have that special moment alone with him, especially Paco.

The men are divided into three groups sitting in three different tables.  The first group, starting from stage right through stage left, are the Puerto Ricans: Paco, Juan, and Cupcakes.  The second group is made up of one lone white man Longshoe, a tough drug addicted Irishman.   The third group is African American: El Raheem, Ice and Omar. There is a reason why they all have their separate but equal tables and that is explained in the play.

El Raheem, a Muslim, thinks this lone white man is the curse of what’s wrong with life in general.

“Yacoub…maker and creator of the devil…swine merchant. Your time is at hand… Soon all devils’ head will roll and now rivers shall flow through the city-created by the blood of Whitey…Devil…beast”. – El Raheem

Pretty heavy stuff and tensions run high, it’s easy to see why these inmates have frequent conflicts.  There are divisions by race, religion, and sexual desire. And these divisions are accentuated when one enters another’s domain.  

The inmates are watched over by Mr. Nett (Cris D’Annunzio) who is strong but supportive of their needs including attempting to get the broken television set fixed.

Omar asks Mr. Nett the reasons why he can get “on the help.”

“Is there something about me that you don’t like?” – Omar

“Why no.  I don’t have anything against you.  But since you ask me I’ll tell you.  One is that when you first came in here you had the clap.” – Mr. Nett   

Also, because he’s gotten into a lot of fights.  Ten fights as a matter of fact, but Mr. Nett tells Omar he will think it over.

Meanwhile Paco comes back from a meeting with his defense attorney who wants him to plead to a felony.  Paco says he can wait for a misdemeanor because he “ain’t got money for bail.”

Cupcakes wants Paco to play cards for pushups but Paco wants none of it. Paco wants to play for coochie coochie. A dance for lonely cell inmates. El Raheem accuses of Paco of thinking like the “white Devil”.

Something Longshoe takes offense to so much so that he and El Raheem get into bobbery.  Mr. Nett breaks them up and then organizes a legitimate jailhouse fight to which a muscular and cut El Raheem wins.

“Wake up black man, melt these walls?  You ask me, a tangible god, to do an intangible feat?... There is nothing mysterious about me.  Tangible gods to tangible deeds.” – El Raheem

Meanwhile, in keeping with character and in a prison toast, Cupcakes gets everyone to sing “Mambo tu le pop”.

And then Clark Davis (Matthew Jaeger) meekly slithers into the detention area.  Clark is Caucasian.

“First time in the joint.” – Clark Davis

Loneshoe takes him in as a brethren (another white guy), introduces himself, and tells him all about the floor.  It is Longshoe’s litany of who’s who, and where one should sit, etc.

Mr. Nett storms into the room, beats Clark senseless, and throws him to the floor. Nett accuses Clark of being a child molester and Paco gives him the name of “Short Eyes” (Child molester; according to prisoners, the lowest, most despicable kind of criminal.) Longshoe spits into Clark’s face.  Clark’s life goes into a downhill spiral.   

The production seemed to have been cast mostly against type but so much the better as the actors each had exceptional moments on stage.

Miguel Amenyinu as Omar is listed in the play as a boxer who has gotten into multiple fights.  This character background is not well represented.   He was fine, he filled the slots, but the character requires more definition and a reason for being.  In short, Amenyinu needs to justify the final assault.   

Carl Crudup as Ice was fantastic. Crudup succeeds marvelously in a role that appears made for him.  This was a performance that gave a complete truth.  It was filled with humor and sympathy. This was just a fantastic job and a performance not to miss.

Cris D’ Annunzio as Mr. Nett does a nice job as the detention center attendant. As the character he gets a little too close to the prisoners, organizing fights, and making sure things run smoothly on his floor. He lets his emotions get the better of him so much so he is on the verge of losing his job.  But without realizing he may have caused the death of an inmate.  He tries to blame others when, the fault lies mostly, within him.  This is a marvelous look at a type of character we love to hate simply because he is not honest and tries to protect his job at all costs.  Annunzio gives a grand performance.  

Darby Hinton as Captain Allard is a hard nose, stick to your guns, straight shooter.  While he wants to get to find the truth, in reality he knows he will get nowhere.  Still, he has a piece of evidence that will silence all if he chooses to use it.  In the end, he doesn’t.  He is not willing to listen to anyone panegyrize Clark except for Clark’s relatives to which he seems to be on the hook. And I’m not convinced he is conflicted about what he has just done. Still this was a wonderful performance.

Matthew Jaeger as Clark didn’t have a chance.  His character is the worst of the lot. He’s a cornered mouse, frightened of all inmates around him.  But when he says, “First time in the joint” one gets the feeling that it’s probably not. The character is a pedophile, probably insane, and can’t remember some of what he’s done. Jaeger is convincing as a man who’s gotten himself into trouble, and just keeps getting himself into more trouble.  This was a very nice performance.  

Jason Manuel Olazabal was very seductive as Paco, a man who is not gay but likes having sex with men.  (I believe this is in keeping with the Latino tradition.)  His character rides the horse of destiny of which he is not able to disembark to live a civilized life. That aside, there seems to be something missing in the role, his addiction to drugs, withdrawal, or his place in this world.  Sure, he wants out, on his own terms, but he wants others things or persons as well. When he doesn’t get what he wants (Cupcakes), he resorts to a kind of violence and involves the others. This is an excellent performance in need of a stronger and focused objective.   

Daryl Anthony Harper as Mr. Brown did his job effectively as the character, still nothing got under his collar.  Missing were character choices that solidly defines this role and they are choices that must be made to drive the character and give a concrete base to his objective. That being said, there were a lot of nice moments from this actor.

Matias Ponce gave a nice little touch to Cupcakes.  The role says he is slightly feminine but one does not really see this characterization.  He keeps telling us “he’s not that way” and yet he bounces around from table to table in his cutoff jeans.  Perhaps he is not in touch with his feminine side.   Still, his incarceration seems to be a slight error, he shouldn’t be there and yet he is caught up in a terrible nightmare that only gets worse as the play continues.  In the end, he is part of the group whether he likes it or not.  The question is: how does he respond to the fact that he is involved in another crime that will haunt him the rest of his life? When he is released on bail he is connected to the other criminals and will be looking over his shoulder for good.  (Note:  Got to do something about the hair in the eyes.  If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the hair eliminates a great deal of the performance.)

Mark Rolston as Longshoe has dipsomania. As the character, it is something he has not beat and it is probably part of his fighting Irish heritage.   His racist words against his fellow inmates are blades that cut viciously.  He is prone to defending his heritage and armed robbery, which is the reason he is in jail now.  He administers his own brand of justice as he takes the law into his own hands.  It is a disgusting display of justice administered in a chaotic situation.  Rolston lives in the moment and physically moves about the stage with ease giving orders and demanding respect while giving nothing in return.  This is a very nice performance by a very fine actor.

David Santana plays Juan the conscious of the inmates.  He is a standup man who wants to play by the rules.  The problem is, in jail, there are no rules. As the character, he is forceful, not taking anything from anyone and seems to stand for the weak and intimidated. His relationship presents problems and most of the problems stems with his relationship with Clark even at one point threating to kill him, which he does not.  It is a performance that is at times confusing, not specific, and without a clear objective.  For example, Clark must find protection while Santana, as Juan, cares more about cleaning up.  The relationship must be strengthened during the revelation scene to give both men a way out.   

Donte Wince as El Raheem was outstanding!  His moments on stage were captivating.  His objective was clear and his conflict crystal clear.   He is a self-declared “God” and this God, I suppose, is the vengeful God from the Old Testament.  In the moment when the blade is given to him, he still cannot come to grips.  His intellect gets in the way of “the white man is the devil”, no matter what crime the white man has committed.

Also support in this fine cast were Alex Alfaro as Gypsy, and Jon Lance Dura as Blanca playing two transsexuals giving a very brief show. Daniel Zornes played Sergeant Morrison.

Other members of the ensemble and understudies were J. Antonio Baguez, Sean Escalante, Adam Jaso, Christian Levatino, Jason Nieblas, Charles Sanchez, Paul Tully, and Yonathan Zeray.

Julian Acosta has done a fantastic job directing Short Eyes.  It is a wonderful production with a lot of terrific moments.  It’s very obvious he has a distinctive eye and a terrific handle on the craft of acting.  That being said the show plays as though it were over many days and not one day.  But this is very minor in a very strong play.

One can only hope for the success of The Urban Theatre Movement and more shows of this caliber at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Run to see this production through December 18, 2011.  Extended!  

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