Sunday, April 5, 2015

Chavez Ravine an L.A. Revival – by Culture Clash

L - Herbert Siguenza, Richard Montoya, Sabina Zuniga Varela, and Ric Salinas

By Joe Straw

The sea of Latino patrons were visiting this night, Friday February 27, 2015.   

Crossing the street, I was introduced to Luis Valdez (The writer of “La Bamba”, “Zoot Suit”, and “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges”) and his lovely wife Lupe.  Where else does this happen except in Los Angeles?

Our seats in the center, I squeezed by a standing sneering Caucasian woman to take my seat immediately to her left. And in this sea of Latino patrons, she seemed to be the only Caucasian in the crowd (a slight exaggeration). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, my mother was Caucasian. (Let’s pause for a moment on the word “bad” and “Caucasian” in keeping with the theme of the play.)

My ears pick up when this woman began to make disparaging remarks, first she commented about Fernando Valenzuela’s weight and his puffy cheeks, and then she suggested that he should go back to Mexico where he belonged. Her vitriolic gibbering and her indecorous charms were offensive and not in keeping with the respect of nearby patrons.  One was mentally tuning her out, turning her down, historically, like an old 1930s Philco radio with a busted knob.      

At one point, in the play, when the police were evicting homeowners from Chavez Ravine – “Get ‘em out of there!”  she bellowed. I let most of the distractions go.  But at the end of the curtain, a young Latina woman behind her said, “Lady, what is your problem?” “Go away! I can say whatever I want!” The man with our Latina friend said: “Honey it’s really not worth the effort. Let’s go.”  “No, I really want to know what her problem is.”  

The rows of seats kept them separated.  There were no physical thrashings. You just never know where you are going to find your drama, most of the time it’s on stage, and other times, it’s right next to you.  – Narrator.

“Chavez Ravine An L.A. Revival” by Culture Clash, which has now since closed, was a beautiful production about the insidious treatment of human beings that lived along that stretch of Los Angeles.  Beings that were forced out, with funds from the Federal Housing Act of 1949, by a process called eminent domain. The buyouts were a progression of shady backroom deals and intentions of an iniquitous nature.  

Center Theatre Group, Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director, Stephen D. Rountree, Managing Director, Douglas C. Baker, Producing Director, Gordon Davidson Davidson, Founding Artistic Director presents Chavez Ravine An L.A. Revival by Culture Clash and Directed Lisa Peterson January 27 – March 1, 2015 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

L - Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza, Sabina Zuniga Varela, and Richard Montoya

Culture Clash – Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza – are obsequious in their presentation – to do something unique. And I’m not so sure I want to give it a name but I might try before all is said and done. They come together in abstractionism, huddled together to go out to present a historical message, a post card of Los Angeles if you will  in their art of creation. And even if you didn’t get all of the jokes and all of the historical references, you come away an enlighten human being trying to get a grasp on man’s heartlessness to fellow man.  

The year is 1981, opening day at Dodger Stadium, young phenom pitcher Fernando Valenzuela (Herbert Siguenza) takes the mound as Vin Scully (Richard Montoya), Dodger radio announcer, watches and projects his infinitesimal colorful commentary. 

Fernando winds up, eyes reaching for the heaven, and throws his left-handed screwball, standing feet wide, perpendicular to the plate, he stares down opposing batters, or so one thinks.  

But now Valenzuela, on the pitchers mound, has a problem. Scully, along with 50,000 of the Dodger faithful observes Valenzuela staring off into space and of course Scully notices the distraction by way of his sardonic comments.  

Valenzuela’s stare is not directed to the game, the dugout, or the catcher but to the surreptitious Latinos walking toward the mound, the ghosts of Chavez Ravine as it were.     Henry Ruiz (Ric Salinas) and Maria Ruiz (Sabina Zuniga Varela), Henry’s sister, former inhabitants of the area have something to work out before they leave the earthly plain called Dodger Stadium.

Traveling back in time to 1944, Henry Ruiz is greeted by Father Thomas (Richard Montoya), complete with a welcoming brogue, embraces Ruiz for his duty to the war effort.

This is home to Ruiz for the time being.  But not for long as an unsettled Henry tells his sister Maria, and his mother, that he wants to sell the house to make way for the new housing complex, Elysian Park Heights. 

Elysian Park Heights was a grand idea of affordable housing, proposed by Frank Wilkinson (Richard Montoya), site manager of the City Housing Authority, and conceived by Richard Neutra, architect.

The inhabitants set the stage for the long protracted battle in order to keep their home on what is now Dodger Stadium.  (And you can guess who won that fight.)

L - Herbert Siguenza, Ric Salinas, and Sabina Zuniga Varela

Lisa Peterson, the incisive director, leads a show that plays into the designed disorder of Culture Clash’s delightful play. The 1940s noir setting is set around Frank Wilkinson, his predicament, and those bent on his ultimate destruction. And in this setting, neatly played, Wilkinson is a man cornered and pinned down by the worthless souls that would sell their mother for a limp cracker and a stale piece of cheese.  The action is a theatrical form of expressionism that ridicules the linear and highlights the insanity of excavating women and children from their homes and taking it a step further by discrediting people through the use of the McCarthy hearing, smearing FBI files, and bringing forth shadowy vibrations of individuals bent on throwing people out into the street. Munching on popcorn, singing “Take Me Out to The Ballgame”, and reciting Abbott and Costello’s, “Who’s on First?” is a form of Dadaism that rides and ridicules the thought that baseball, in the end, will make everything okay.  Oh say can you see.

Richard Montoya does a grand job as Frank Wilkinson as well as host of other characters.  His voice is strong, and the characterizations were powerful, each and everyone.  There was only a slight bit of forgetfulness when he was hoisted in midair, practically by his cajones, projecting a steady stream, a conscious stream of human insanities, bulging thoughts of ISIS, and laying into a local critic’s view on meretricious theater.  Montoya’s duty on this night was to make us think, to make change, and to piss off the bad Caucasian lady if only to make a difference.  And to that end, the wretched little Prometheus succeeded in dramatic fashion.

Rich Salinas projects himself as someone who practices Commedia dell’arte, always with a mask of sorts, and exaggerated physical expressions that works well for each character portrayed. He is a very physical comedian; dancing at times to make a statement.  His characters are very specific and the manner in which he breaths life into a character seems effortless.   

Herbert Siguenza inhabits a character completely in the way Constantine Sanislvaski might have.  There is a lot of depth and characterization in each role and a profound seriousness of each moment.  Siguenza appears to take pleasure in feeding off the audience - that give and take enjoyed by actors everywhere – making sure that each moment of his physical and emotional life projected out to the audience is just right.   

Sabina Zuniga Varela does a fine job as Maria, a compilation of strong Latina women that struggles in the good fight, despite their collywobbles. Certainly Maria’s role is to intenerate the backbiting hearts of the men fighting to destroy her way of life.  Varela is funny, strong, and makes her point grand in this production.

The band members and background actors are presented in a manner that works tremendously well in this production.  They are Vaneza Mari Calderón, Mandy Rodarte, Scot Rodarte and John Avila, Music Director/Arranger.  Their music was fabulous!

Rachel Hauck, Scenic Design, gave us a really nice look to the production.

Christopher Acebo, Costume Design, did a fantastic job with the costumes.  One can only imagine the changes going on backstage to back onstage.

José López, Lighting Design, was responsible for the noir lighting that gave the night a particular look and transported us back to the days of noir films.

Other members of the production are as follows:

Paul James Prendergast – Sound Design/Additional Composition
Jason H. Thompson – Projection Design
Kirsten Parker – Production Stage Manager
Brooke Baldwin – Stage Manager
Michael Ritchie – Artistic Director
Stephen D. Rountree – Managing Director
Douglas C. Baker – Producing Director
Nausica Stergiou – General Manager
Gordon Davidson – Founding Artistic Director
John Glore - Dramaturg

Also Lindsay Allbaugh, Associate Producer, who gave us brilliant work at The Elephant Stages for many years, now moves her glorious talent to The Center Theatre Group!

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