Friday, August 18, 2017

Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez

Demain Bichir as El Pachuco

I met a young actor, a person that I had seen in a number of plays, working on a small stage on Western Avenue. I was expecting to see him in the show on that night but he allowed his understudy go on. 

This next thing usually doesn’t happen but, afterwards I met up with that actor and said that his deed was unselfish and admirable but if he wasn’t in the show, I couldn’t write about him.

His eyes got wide, like a deer in the headlights, and I’m not sure he got my intention; he just nodded his head, august in manner, and moved on into the cold night.  

Never give up an opportunity to be seen. You just never know.   – Narrator

Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez was playing at the Mark Taper Forum and I wanted to throw out some observations, something that stuck with this viewer to give you a flavor, a surrounding sense of enlightenment. 

I’ll try to make this illuminating.

The patrons

Most supporters dressed in ritual as though they were out for music and dancing.  Latina patrons were rich with color in tight dresses that expanded upward the visible skin - nicely projecting a type of attitude.  Men sauntered in western boots, thick black belts, and wide dark sombreros. Some came in zoot suits. They all came with physically rich unannounced backstories and then poured through the doors as though they were coming to see family.  

One needn’t say it but Los Angeles has a vibrant Latino theatre going community; as witnessed time and time again with patrons coming in droves to frequent the Latino Theatre Company, Casa 0101, and the Hero Theatre.

The theatre

The Mark Taper does a lot of things right welcoming patrons into their beautiful theatre. 

Putting that aside for a moment the theatre seating is a little precarious; I sat about four rows back from the stage and squeezed my 6”6” frame into one of their tiny seats. My legs widened in an uncomfortable “V” formation, into that perilous position also known as the deadly man spread.

A lot of people, judging from this crowd, saw Zoot Suit back in 1978 when it played at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood.  Remembered trailers on TV highlighted Edward James Olmos as El Pachucco when he was a man and not a myth.  Today Olmos is just a myth.

El espectáculo

There were a couple of things that caught my attention.  The first was El Pachucco (Demiam Bichir), after cutting a hole in the newspaper scrim, paraded out, zoot suit and all, and with an attitude, called out to a woman in the audience.  She was in a red dress with thick eyelashes that I could see from where I sat.  El Pachuco, threw out his arm, pointed his finger in her direction.  Her face was illuminated by phone and covered in guilt when he asked her to put away her cell phone, all without missing his rhythmic cadence.

“The Pachuco was existential
for he was an Actor in the streets
both profane and reverential.
It was the secret fantasy of every bato
In or out of the Chicanada
To put on a Zoot suit and play the Myth
Más Chucote que la chingada.
¡Pos órale! – Pachuco

A few moments into the show, in the first scene, Enrique Reyna (Daniel Valdez) got a huge applause on his entrance and was quite good in those moments, playing the patriarch of the Reyna family. (Taking a glance at the program I noticed a younger Daniel Valdez in the very first production as well, hence, the applause.)

And, suddenly there was a delightfulness about that scene, a sincere simplicity, of a protective father and mother, brothers and sister, and a grand knowledge of the material in the manner with which the actors related on stage. 

Who directed this? None other than Luis Valdez!

Matias Ponce and Demian Birchir

One more thing that struck a chord with me and the night was Ann Closs—Farley's Costume Design which was rich and spectacular, colorful and enticing! It was a solid blend of time and place.

Center stage Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce) looked very familiar.  Yes, I have seen him in other productions. Ponce is tall, statuesque, and has a striking resemblance to the giggling Jimmy Fallon.  

Later in the play, the sassy El Pachuco was stripped of his zoot suit and went marching up the steps in a Tarzan like loincloth.  In the talk back after the show, the speakers asked the audience how they liked the scene.  “Oh, we thought that was good.” was the response. 

But, removed of this clothing, how did that progress the play? Was he less of a man or stronger because of it? On appearance alone, without cloth, he seemed weaker. Is the suit the only measure of this man, if so how can the man be the myth?  

Moving up the stairs in loincloth El Pachuco, defaced by the raging white populace, was leaving forever, following the bright light, for reasons unknown, but later, when all things seemed lost, he comes back better than ever, industrial strength, El super mythical Pachuco, Zoot suit and all! And yes we like a strong El Pachuco!

“I ask you to find these zoot-suited gangsters guilty of murder to put them in the gas chamber where they belong.” – Press (Tom G. McMahon)

“Cabrón!” – An audience member.

George (Brian Abraham), the defense attorney took center stage after “cabrón” was said and the audience just laughed at the man who at this time disappeared among the many faces in the audience.  We were all seething, thinking similar thoughts.    

George waited a moment, nodded his head, and then said, “That’s right.  You’re right.”  More laughter. I looked up and saw Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce) squeezing his smile with his fingers and he was looking at Tommy Roberts (Caleb Foote) who was also trying to maintain a serious composure during this very tense moment.

“The defendants will rise. Henry Reyna, José Castro, Thomas Roberts, Ismael Torres, and so forth. You have been tried by a jury of your peers and found guilty of murder in the first and second degrees.” – Judge (Richard Steinmetz)

Peers? Right! A travesty of justice!

The Letter scene in prison did not work effectively.  Something was missing in execution.  Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont) was composing the letters, and then handing them off to the prisoners Ismael ‘Smiley’ Torres (Raul Cardona) – and this is just an aside – I don’t remember ‘Smiley’ smiling that much but had a very strong technique and was impressive – Tommy Roberts, Joey Castro (Oscar Camacho was very appealing and wonderful in his craft.) and Henry.  

Alice is now in the thick of things, but not really in prison, and the prisoners have to relate to her letters, to her, and exude their art with magnification and imagination. The scene requires an effective working of all the elements of stagecraft, lighting, sound, and placement. This is a scene where relationships must gel, everything must come together, Alice is not really there, imaginations are not fully realized, want not completely executed, and overall the scene did not succeed effectively.

That said Luis Valdez’s play is a masterpiece.  There’s not much of a stretch saying his written word is a compendium of a life lived in theatre, of the people and for the people. Yes, it’s all there.

A fascinating thing about the play, Valdez doesn’t sugarcoat the life of Henry Reyna; he projects the man and his faults.  And Henry has got a lot of faults.

El Pachuco was a man, now a myth, and a seraphim for which all men want and can’t have.  He is full of life, vigor, and mostly style. Henry is the only one that can materialize this image and listen to his advice, but he has a hard time listening and being gentle when actions are ignited within him. Valdez’s play is a very nice read. But when all is said and done things, over the course of time, have not changed all that much. In fact, they have gotten worse.

Mariela Arteaga (La Pachuca Hoba), Holly Hyman (La Pachuca Lil Blue), and Fiona Cheung (La Pachuca Manchuka) were very fine in those roles. Yes they were. The kept El Pachuco on task.

“Ese. !surote! How about a dance for old time’s sake? No te hagas gacho.” - Bertha

Melinna Bobadilla is Bertha Villareal a woman who wants her man back at any cost.

Stephani Candelaria (Lupe Reyna) gave us more than we could handle and decidedly has a strong physical craft that play well into the upper deck of the Taper.

Kimberlee Kidd was the dance captain.  

Rocío López was Della Barrios a woman of unquestionable faith and loyalty. Still, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to stay with Henry, but she saw something everyone else overlooked. Mason did well but needed to find a deeper connection.

Andres Ortiz played Rudy Reyna a character that got everyone into a lot of trouble.

Other members of the cast are as follows:

Michael Naydoe Pinedo – Ragman/Cub Reporter/Sailor
Gilbert Saldivar – Rafas/Marine
Richard Steinmetz – Lieutenant Edwards/Judge F.W. Charles/Prison Guard
Evan Strand – Swabbie
Brandford Tatum – Sergeant Smith/Bosun’s Mate/Bailiff
Raphael Thomas – Dance Captain
Maria Torres – Choreography

The crew includes:

Kinan Valdez – Associate Director
Lala Guerrero – Music
Christopher Acebo – Scenic Design
Ann Closs—Farley – Costume Design
Pablo Santiago – Lighting Design
Philip G. Allen – Sound Design
David Murakami – Projection Design
Jessica Mills –Wigs
Steve Rankin – Fight Director
Rosalinda Morales, Pauline O’Con, and Candido Cornejo, Jr. – Casting
Phillip Esparza – Executive Producer
David S. Franklin – Production Stage Manager
Michelle Blair – Stage Manager
Susie Walsh – Stage Manager
Michael Ritchie –Artistic Director

Just some thoughts.


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