Thursday, January 1, 2015

Piñata Dreams by Josefina Lopez

By Joe Straw

Watching Piñata Dreams by Josefina Lopez is like revisiting movies.  There are similarities to The Wizard of Oz with the theme of getting back home, to Pinocchio where the piñata boy become real life boy, to slipping into Neverland in Alice in Wonderland, to a lesser degree with A Clockwork Orange, and to the non-scary parts of Nightmare on Elm Street.

All of this is good as Piñata Dreams is a play for children. Actually adults of all ages or anyone who enjoys a fantasy will delight in the undertaking of this production. But is this a fantasy or a dream?

Casa 0101 presents Piñata Dreams by Josefina Lopez directed by Corky Dominguez and produced by Sherrie Lofton and Anisa Hamdan through December 28, 2014.

Piñata Dreams is a very, very likable play that needs another 30 minutes to appropriate a full-length genre.  But for now, it is very pleasant fare.  Corky Dominguez, the director, does an impressive job creating the fantasy and the dream. It could benefit from a slight focus but I will get to that later.

J.J. (Noah Logan Martinez) has a problem and it’s mostly about school.  He has a touch of a learning disability and not being able to concentrate on his studies.  But he has a highly active imagination and more than anything else wants to make beautiful piñatas for his father’s piñata shop, which already has an impressive collection dangling from the ceiling.  Colorful piñatas, beautiful piñatas, and all are wonderfully priced to boot.

J.J.’s mother (Evy De La Cruz) has died for reasons not entirely clear.

Then a party supplies store moves in across the street and tries to steal the piñata business by having a two-for-one sale.  J.J’s father (David Guerra) finds this news distressing and hopes that will not ruin his business.

And while the little boy loves piñatas, J.J. is more enamored of the alebrije – sculptures that are compositions of two or more animals. And try as he might with his studies, J.J. works in the shop because he finds it more fascinating.

Don Chelo (Jose Garcia) saunters into the shop and throws more fuel into the fire by announcing that the new piñata shop has Iron Man and helicopters.  Don Chelo falls into that category: friends you don’t really need.

But J.J.’s father has other ideas for his only son while his kindhearted grandmother (Evy DeLa Cruz) watches.

“Do your homework!  Artists have a hard life.” – Father

“But you make people happy.” – J.J.
At night, working by candlelight in his father’s shop, J.J. falls asleep. When the candle spills, and a fire burns the shop to the ground.

What are the other theatrical expressions that used masks? 

The Japanese had a type of theater called Noh, which originated in 612 A.D.  It is a style of theatre that takes traditional tales in which supernatural creatures are transformed into human form.  Generally it is the main character that wears the mask while the supporting characters do not.

In Piñata Dreams is similar in that the main character wears a mask.  Different from Noh, the supporting players also wear masks.  The only time we see them is when they step back from their characters and narrate the story. 

So J.J. is all too real.

In Commedia dell’arte, literally meaning – comedy of craft, the actors are in exaggerated masks or heavy character makeup.  (The Actors Gang, in Culver City, teaches this method on their stage in Los Angeles and extends their reach to prisons throughout the state.) It is a form of theatre where professional actors perfect a specific role or mask.  They generally used props rather than extensive scenery.

J.J.’s prop is his magnificent piñata stick.

Josefina Lopez’s play is called Piñata Dreams but we never actually go into the dream in the way Alice does by falling asleep, or for that matter the way Dorothy does in The Wizard of Oz where the fantasy is created by a jar on her noggin.  Is it possible the entire play is a dream? And if so, why are we immersed in J.J.’s real life with supporting characters that wear masks?

This is something different.

Corkey Dominguez, the wonderful maker of the masks, and director, has provided us with his style, his own rhythm, encapsulating moments with an actor’s sharp turn to the fourth wall.  This style is very effective and adds to the dream. The expressions we don’t get from the mask are made up for with the characters’ creative use of hands, which define the space they occupy in the dream.

Dominguez presents the play in a way that the boy hears the blended noises of other characters as possibly one would hear and view them in a dream but doesn’t see the faces and can’t make them out.  It makes for fascinating work.

But here is where there is a slight problem.

In the opening and the ending of the play when one really needs a cold dose of reality, the characters, with the exception of J.J., are in masks.  The audience never gets the impression that this is a dream or where that dream begins. Real life, or what we perceive as reality, has faces, rather than masks, and we never get a taste of the real life from the other characters in the way we were introduced the characters in The Wizard of Oz.  Everything is a fantasy, a dream, an adventure and a conflict that J.J. – the only one without the mask – must overcome.   

J.J. is a real life boy, with real life problems, making real piñatas.  When we hear him say “But you make people happy” it is wonderful and heartbreaking and it would have been best to see the emotion on his father’s face, rather than the mask. But again, is it all a dream?

Josefina Lopez, the writer, does some marvelous work providing us with a rich assortment of Latino characters making their way through life.  It is a simple life but one which means so much to the characters and their community.  It is a story of caring, loving, and sharing. And it is also a story of unspeakable menaces that ride the back of a small helpless human being. But, the night I saw it, the execution was not that specific, the elements of the story lacked the physical progression to bring the boy to an emotional fever pitched homecoming. That aside, there’s something wonderful here.  I saw it on the second week; some problems may have been ironed out, but maybe not all.

Sherrie Lofton & Anisa Hamdam terrifically produced this play.

Noah Logan Martinez plays J.J. He is a cute young man and does well on stage with his brand of humor.  There is a lot more to learn about acting should he decide to pursue his craft.  

Isaiah Cazares plays a variety of characters the Party supply store promoter, Itzali, Firefighter, Young Great Grandfather, Scary cave alebrije #1, Huitzilipochli, Store Customer #3.  There is probably more to be had with the Young Great Grandfather part because it is in underworld (or a dream).  The relationship to his great grandson requires strengthening and his knowledge of the place requires awareness.

Evy De La Cruz plays Grandmother, Piñata #4, and Cave Child. She is a fine actress and does remarkably well with the Grandmother. And a little more mollycoddling with her grandson would add to a nice performance.

Jose A. Garcia plays Don Chelo, Piñata #1, Cave Child, Diablo #1, Big Diablo #2, and Monster at the window.  Garcia gives a terrific performance as Don Chelo complete with a slight speech impediment due to two terrific protruding front teeth on the mask.  But I’m wondering if there is more to had with this character that sets lives in motion simply by his annoying appearance.

Sophie Goldstein is the Daughter Customer, Piñata #2, Cassie, and Store Customer #1.

David Guerra is impressive as J.J.’s father; his hand movements and way about the stage are specific and true to life.  This was a job well done and effectively done.   Guerra also played the Grandfather and Great-Grandfather.

Suzanne Santos plays the Mother Customer, Piñata #3, Halipi, Scary cave alebrije #2, Man tied to tree, and Store Customer #2.

Other members of the production team are as follows:

Stage Manager:  Alyssa Champo
Set Designer:  Cesar Holguin
Costume Designer:  Dori Quan
Sound Designer:  Vincent A. Sanchez
Lighting Designer:  Sohail e. Najafi
Light Board Operator:  Jorge Villanueva
House Manager:  Suzanne Linares
Production Photographer:  Ed Krieger
Assistant Stage Manager:  Julius Bronola
Pinata Maker:  Andrew Cervantes
Asst. Set Builder:  Angel Perez
Graphic Design:  Josefina Lopez
Social Media:  Sylvia Cortes
Mask Makers:  Beth Peterson & Corky Dominguez
Webmaster:   Mark Kraus
Gallery Curator:  Margaret Garcia
Art Image:  Crystal De La Torre
Publicist:  Steve Moyer

Co-Producer:  Jennifer Madrid

This show has closed.   But please check with Casa 0101 for future show.  The theatre is a delightful venue for Boyle Height and you are always welcomed. 

Phone:  323-263-7684

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