|L-R Sal Lopez, Evelina Fernandez, Ofelia Medina|
By Joe Straw
Walking into the theatre creates an excitement one would not believe. On this particular night, I experienced a strong reaction as I sat down. A warmth overcame me. Whispered voices became comprehensible, images became clearer, and I felt a pleasant vibration as though ghosts from the past were reaching out and welcoming me. My eyes started watering and I was having trouble keeping my composure. While I’ve had similar experiences in the past, this usually happens when I am actually seeing the performance, not before it.
Going to the Los Angeles Theatre Center to see the Latino Theatre Company is a desperate attempt on my part to broaden my horizons. After all, I’ve lived in Los Angeles many years and only know a modicum of Spanish. The one thing I can say is that I’m willing to explore new horizons and theatre will do that for you.
I'm going to be challenged when I see productions at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. But, I will brush aside the ignorance of my Spanish, find the part of my brain that comprehends, and get into the meaning of it all. But theatre is not just about the words, it’s also about the intention. The language barrier should not matter at all. Still.
The Latino Theater Company presents Charity: Part III of A Mexican Trilogy by Evelina Fernandez and directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela.
One day, I will understand the meaning of: Octavio Paz’s poetry, the lonesome songs of the mariachis, and the beautiful words of an Evelina Fernandez’s play without translation. One day, one day.
But, whatever words Evelina Fernandez manages to capture it is a song in her language. The songs are beautiful words without the music, stunning poetry without the verse, and a bountiful charity without the pity.
Charity manages to hit the mark on many levels and it hits hard on the idea of charity. Giving, not wanting to give, and taking, not wanting to take.
One thing I know I can’t do is read the English subtitles while watching the expressions on the actors face. Thankfully most of the dialogue is in English.
And I just soaked it all in, sat there staring at the beautiful Scenic Design by Francois-Pierre Couture and Tesshi Nakagawa. The two-level set includes a circular staircase that sweeps one up to the second floor of this marvelous set where half of the action takes place.
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
Make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen
Give him two lips like roses and clover
Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over
Sandman, I’m so alone
Don’t have nobody to call my own
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
Beautifully sung by Valentina (Esperanza America Ibarra), a song about loneliness, dreams, and praying for someone to spirit us away.
Valentina walks into her home and introduces us to her mother, Gina (Evelina Fernandez), who is in a dour mood watching the funeral of Pope John Paul II in April 1995 projected on a giant screen behind her. Upstairs is Nana (Ofelia Medina) a spry 105 years young woman who is not going anywhere, despite the fact that Gina is prepared for her to be dead, gone, and morgued out of the house.
But Valentina, her great-granddaughter, has not given up on Nana. While chain-smoking cigarettes like Betty Davis, Nana wants to share her stories and impart the wisdom she has collected through the years. But upstairs, there are some strange happenings, in particular Silvestre (Sal Lopez) and Emiliano (Sam Golzari), two ghosts, are waiting semi-patiently to drag Nana into the throws of the newly departed. Still, Nana is not going anywhere.
While all this is going on, Juan Francisco (Jonathan William Cruz), a relative from Mexico, arrives unexpectedly and he needs a place to stay. They accept him as one of the family rather than check his credentials. He appears to speak only Spanish, but when they talk about him in English, they discover that he understands and speaks English (with an accent of course).
Meanwhile Gina’s husband, Rudy (Rudy Ramos), comes homes to find this stranger drinking his milk and eating his cereal. Gina, in her usual off-beat mood, wants Juan Francisco out of the house. There are too many mouths to feed. And everyone feels kind of the same way. There is to be no more charity in this house, none, go away.
But there is a solution to this problem. Bobby (Geoffrey Rivas), Gina’s brother, visits with Betty (Lucy Rodriguez), their slightly wacky sister. Bobby takes a liking to Juan Francisco until he finds that Juan is his relative so no sex for Bobby. But no matter, Bobby hires Juan Francisco to work in his salon until he gets on his feet.
Meanwhile the ghosts upstairs are getting rather impatient and they are ready to drag Nana into that peaceful, special, place, with all the bright lights.
Good luck, she’s not going anywhere.
Evelina Fernandez is like a Chicana Chekov. Her characters are rather dour but there is wonderful life behind all the pain and misery they face. There is a lot to like about the writing, the characters, and the predicaments these people get themselves into. Stanislavsky thought all of Chekov’s’ plays were delightful comedies much to the dismay of Chekov. And I believe that to be true of Evelina Fernandez’s work, although sometimes one has to break through the strong veneer of hopelessness to find the humor in it all. Still, I had a great time. Fernandez’s words are an armamentarium of the American Latino experiences and I can’t wait to see "Faith", part one in the trilogy.
"Hope", the wonderful second part of the trilogy, is still in my mind so it was a little confusing watching the same characters grown up. And it was confusing to connect actors to the characters since some of these actors played other characters in "Hope". (Connecting the dots is a challenging game.)
The Latino Theatre Company brings in a few new actors to liven up the mix of regulars actors, and that is always a good thing.
|L-R Lucy Rodriguez, Geoffrey Rivas, Rudy Ramos, Esperanza America Ibarra, Evelina Fernandez|
Ofelia Medina brings Nana to life with a strong portrayal of the matriarch. As the character, she is as robust and focused as anyone could be for someone who doesn’t want to die. And she is always on the move. Clasping her hand together so that one may stick their head in, pick her up, and move her to another location. (The elderly need a little help getting up.) This was a marvelous portrayal.
Geoffrey Rivas is Bobby, brother and gay hairdresser, and is quite outstanding in this role. He livens the party wherever he goes. It really doesn’t matter if the Pope has died since death is not something to bring him “down”. Rivas is a regular at the Latino Theatre Company and he gives another solid performance.
Sal Lopez play Silvestre, a priest, who was in love with Nana when they were young. He is now gone, doesn’t have much to say, but wants her to go with him. And just when you think he’s convinced her, something happens. Lopez also plays Johnny, Gina’s brother, who is a damaged soul from his Vietnam War experience. I wasn’t sure what this character wanted or where he was going. Still, Sal is a favorite and I think the Latino Theatre Company will keep him.
Evelina Fernandez as Gina is a dour as they come. Come, to think of it, the character Gina was very dour in “Hope”. One can’t help but have a little sympathy for this character. She wants more to life than being stuck in her house, watching a funeral all day long, and taking care of her grandmother who should be dead, dead, dead. On top of everything else she doesn’t know to pray the Rosary. Google should be the order of the day.
Rudy Ramos as Rudy has some nice moments but really needs to find the humor in his portrayal. Surely all the love has not gone out of the high school sweethearts. Find a way to rekindle the relationship and move forward with life with a little more optimism.
Lucy Rodriguez as Betty is engaging as the sister who’s been married four times (4 times!) and doesn’t understand why she is still alone. Possibly she has an overactive imagination and a strong libido and that libido caught her in all the wrong places. Rodriguez gives a cleaver and funny performance.
Esperanza America Ibarra as Valentina is a new breed of actress. Her work is carefully crafted, her singing was poignant, and she has this sarcastic bite that will not let go. It’s always good to see her perform with the Latino Theatre Company.
Sam Golzari plays Emilano, Gina and Rudy’s son who was killed in the Iraq War. The uniform was slightly confusing as it resembled the army uniform era of the sixties and seventies and not one of Iraq. Also, I couldn’t really tell what he was doing in Nana’s room, possibly wanting to bring her into the light is my guess, but he never really took action to do this. He says that he wants Nana to help Gina grieve and heal but his actions, stuck in the upstairs bedroom, do little to accomplish that objective. Wasn’t really sure what his character wanted and how his relationship to Nana works along with his relationship with Gina and Valentina. Which is not to say that I didn’t like the performance, I did. I just thought his objective needed to be clearer.
Jonathan William Cruz did a very nice job as Juan Francisco and as the one who accepts charity until he gets up on his feet. But he seemed to just come and go without a purpose. His relationship seemed to be all about family but I would have liked to see his relationship stronger with other members of the family, particularly Valentina. I’m not sure what he wanted, other than a place to stay, and more is needed to give this character a strong core.
Dyana Ortelli plays Nana as well but I did not see her the night I was there. Also Dianna Miranda plays Betty in an alternate’s role.
Jose Luis Valenzuela does a nice job directing this play. But, I would like to address a few things I didn’t quite get (and that’s only me). Jose Luis, feel free to use the comment section below.
I was not really sure the purpose of the slow motion walking and how it related to the others who were speaking dialogue. How does walking in slow motion work in the context of the theme of charity? Also, one gets the point of the video being projected against the wall, but having it run continuously might detract from the fine acting on stage. Wouldn’t it be better for us to concentrate on the moments of the play rather than the video?
Jose Luis Valenzuela certainly provides a play party. At times, Charity is a spectacle and a feast for the eyes of living things willing to breath freely in the hope of having a fulfilling life.
Sound Design by John Zalewski. Lighting & Videography Design by Cameron Mock. Costume Design by Carlos Brown. Movement Coordinator by Urbanie Lucero. The Prop Master by Tesshi Nakagawa. Technical Director by Wayne Nakasone. Sound Assistant by Sarah Roberts. Associate Lighting Design by Carolina Ortiz. Assistant Stage Manager by Fidel Gomez and the State Manager by Henry “Heno” Fernandez.
The Casting was by Rosalinda Morales & Pauline O’con, CSA. The Musical Director was Marcos Loya and I’m guessing that he was the musician on stage that provided the accompaniment for the fine singing. He was very effective and it was a job well done.
The one thing you know when you see a Fernandez and Valenzuela production is that there will be something for everyone. And there will also be something to think about for a long time.
Go, and take a friend that needs a little charity.
Through June 10, 2012