Two of LA’s major stages are currently occupied by the premieres of productions about the México-Southern California connection — a rare and exciting coincidence.
I frequently nag our theatrical movers and shakers to tell more local stories. And many of our most interesting local stories are rooted in the inherent drama within the relationship between the United States and México. So I suggest that LA audiences should see both of these new works — although both of them could be improved.
They’re quite different in structure. Los Otros at the Mark Taper Forum has only two actors. It’s a short musical, without an intermission, but its time span ranges over much of the 20th century and into the 21st. Charity at LATC has a cast of nine, and not only is it longer, with an intermission, but it’s part of a trilogy of three plays about one family. Although that trilogy covers an even wider time span than that of Los Otros, Charity itself is set in 2005.
Los Otros isn’t entirely brand-new. An earlier version of the first half, “Tres Niñas,” opened in New York in 2008. The New York Times review of that production, which I read after seeing the Taper version, gives the impression that the script of “Tres Niñas” hasn’t changed very much in four years. But the director, Graciela Daniele, and performer Michele Pawk are different, and it’s now coupled with “Dos Hombres,” also by librettist and lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh and composer Michael John LaChiusa. Together these two solo mini-musicals make up Los Otros.
“Tres Niñas” is told from the perspective of a non-Latina woman (the character is identified only as “Woman”) who has encounters with Mexican immigrants in 1952, in 1967-1968, and a few years later.
She’s a child in 1952, when she and two of her friends in National City, near San Diego, smuggle food to a Mexican family who has illegally crossed the border. Fifteen years later, in Burbank, she’s a divorced mother of two who goes to Tijuana with her ex in order to smuggle a Mexican nanny across the border. In the ’70s, she seduces an 18-year-old immigrant whom she meets at a North Hollywood taco stand.
“Tres Niñas” and “Dos Hombres” are solo storytelling sessions in which the performer sings most of the time — so maybe the style should be called “storysinging” instead of storytelling. The creators emphasize subtle details, as opposed to grandstanding generalizations, in the words and in the music. In “Tres Niñas,” these details add up to a panoramic view of this woman’s fascination with these otros in her life — including her occasional fears as well as her customarily warmer feelings.
In the New York production, Woman was played by Victoria Clark, who happens to be one of the stars of Follies right now — at the Ahmanson Theatre, next door to the Taper, also under the auspices of Center Theatre Group. If you’ve seen Clark and know about her roles in the original “Tres Niñas,” it’s difficult to avoid wondering what she would do with the Los Otros role. Pawk, who’s currently playing the Woman, is convincing enough as a strapped and lonely single mother, but her singing occasionally strays from sounding realistically strained to distractingly shaky.
“Dos Hombres” follows “Tres Niñas,” and this time we’re following a US-born Mexican American man, beginning with the Mexican hurricane that prompted his mother to migrate to el norte, before he was born.
The primary home of Man (yes, that is this character’s non-name) is in Carlsbad, also in San Diego County. But summertime work takes his family to the plum fields farther north. Here, as a kid who’s about the same age in 1945 as Woman was in 1952, Man has a memorable encounter with a friend in the upper story of the Anglo overseer’s house.
By 1994, Man is an accountant and the lover of “a white man who was once the escort of Ava Gardner” — so perhaps we’re somewhere in the vicinity of LA. The 1994 cultural references flow somewhat too specifically through Fitzhugh’s word processor in this scene. We also catch glimpses of Man at 75, enjoying a shower in what is apparently 2008.
Near the end of “Dos Hombres,” the writers attempt to connect it more literally to “Tres Niñas.” Woman re-enters the stage — if I understand it correctly, it turns out that her ex-husband is now Man’s lover, and she’s on great terms with both men. But this other man is completely unseen, and the device feels wobbly. It’s an illustration of the problem inherent in so many solo shows, in which a character who never appears on stage is pivotal to the plot and cries out for a flesh-and-blood manifestation. It’s too bad that Los Otros is stuck with just two actors.
Julio Monge plays Man, without the occasional distractions of Pawk’s singing voice, although perhaps our ears give him more latitude as he’s sometimes portraying a 75-year-old singing in the shower. Daniele — a Latina immigrant herself (although she’s originally from Argentina, not México) — has devised a silken production that respects the material’s understated qualities.
Los Otros, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Closes July 1. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.
***All Los Otros production photos by Craig Schwartz
Center Theatre Group’s commission for Los Otros was apparently inspired by a desire by CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie to develop “stageworks that were California-based,” according to Fitzhugh — but I’m sure many LA artists would like to know why he had to go to New York to find artists capable of creating something about California (granted that Fitzhugh did, however, grow up in California).
At LATC, by contrast, Latino Theater Company is accustomed to using Southern Californians to create material that’s set in southern California. Last year’s Hope was an exception for its setting — it’s set in Phoenix, which is where playwright Evelina Fernández grew up. However, her family moved to California when she was a child, and Charity, the second produced installment of her loosely autogiographical Mexican Trilogy, is set in LA.
Charity picks up the tale of the family originally depicted in Hope, last year at this same LATC theater. We have yet to see Faith — which will present the earliest chapter of the trilogy.
Oddly enough, one of the characters who is expected to be featured in Faith is also the top-billed role in Charity. Here, in 2005, she’s more than a hundred years old – known as Nana, she’s the great-grandmother of the family’s youngest member Valentina, who’s already a young adult. The veteran Mexican actress Ofelia Medina plays Nana, top-billed ahead of the regular members of Latino Theater Company.
Nana doesn’t exactly take over the play. You could argue that the play’s central character is Gina (portrayed by the playwright herself), Valentina’s mother. Gina’s in a serious funk since the death of her son Emiliano, who was a soldier in Iraq, and is turning back toward the Catholic Church, as reflected in her endless fascination with the TV coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II — who opposed the war, she notes. She’s in conflict with her husband and daughter over her inability to return to the living, and she’s disconcerted by the arrival of another young man, a distant relative who has just emigrated from México with starry-eyed notions of what life in the US in general and life in LA in particular is like. Gina’s three siblings also provide various avenues into the 21st century.
Yet the play begins with an excessively long monologue (mostly in Spanish, with English supertitles) by Nana, who’s living upstairs. And it frequently veers from the more up-to-date actions of the younger family members downstairs to Nana’s conversations not only with those younger family members but also with Nana’s long-since-deceased ex-husband and the dead young Emiliano, who visit her from the afterlife.
That’s too much stage time for Nana. Presumably she will be one of the central characters of Faith, so I couldn’t help but wonder why she’s such a major character in Charity. Because she’s one step away from a death that her granddaughter considers long overdue, and because she frequently converses with ghosts, she casts a pallor over large chunks of the play, which otherwise comes to life when the focus shifts to the contemporary conflicts of the downstairs characters. Sure, Fernández and Medina (under the direction of José Luis Valenzuela) try to make Nana a funny as well as a grim presence, but these attempts sometimes come off as the sort of stereotypically cute gestures that younger people often write for the very old.
The goal of the Latino Theater is eventually to produce all three chapters of the trilogy more or less simultaneously, or perhaps in rapid succession. Based on the tremendously evocative and vibrant Hope, I’ve been hopeful for the success of this endeavor, but the current state of Charity requires a more charitable disposition. Still, I have faith that the eventual trilogy will come together and might ultimately be strengthened by the chance to rewrite parts of Charity before it’s produced again.
Charity, Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 1, 514 S. Spring St., LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Sun (June 10). www.thelatc.org. 866-811-4111.
***All Charity photos by Ed KriegerPrint