Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Review: Solitude at the Los Angeles Theatre Center

Michael Sedano


Written By | Evelina Fernandez
Directed by |José Luis Valenzuela
Choreographed by | Urbanie Lucero
Original Music by | Semyon Kobialka
Produced by | Latino Theater Company

Robert Beltran (Star Trek, Voyager, Big Love), Evelina Fernandez (Luminarias, American Me), Fidel Gomez (Walk Out, Luminarias, 7th Heaven), Sal Lopez (Luminarias, American Me, Dementia), Geoffrey Rivas (Luminarias, CSI), Lucy Rodriguez (Dementia, ER), Semyon Kobialka on Cello

In Solitude, playwright Evelina Fernandez has crafted a complex delight that fills the stage with music, dance, and drama that invites the audience to feel and think beyond the limits of the play, a chicana’s version of the play’s the thing wherein to capture the conscience of the audience. Featuring excellent acting, effective staging, aural diversity, the performance leaves people thinking and talking about important questions. It’s the best kind of theatre, in other words.

I saw the initial preview performance Friday night. It had a few kinks, but that’s why professional companies like Latino Theater Company mount previews. I’m sure by the time Solitude opens on September 9, continuing through October 4, all the rough edges will be gone and audiences will thrill to Director Jose Luis Valenzuela’s masterful staging of a sure-to-be theatrical treasure.

Playwright Fernandez frames the drama with several quotations from Octavio Paz’ landmark work, Labyrinth of Solitude, none more arresting than this opening excerpt from Paz that foreshadows the action. Here’s the play in a nutshell:

Death and birth are solitary experiences. We are born alone and we die alone. When we are expelled from the maternal womb, we begin the painful struggle that finally ends in death. Does death mean a return to the life that precedes life? …. although we do not know, our whole being strives to escape the opposites that torment us. Everything -- self-awareness, time, reason, customs, habits -- tends to make us exiles from life, but at the same time everything impels us to return, to descend to the creative womb from which we were cast out. What we ask of love (which, being desire, is a hunger for communion, a will to fall and to die as well as to be reborn) is that it give us a bit of true life, of true death. We do not ask it for happiness or repose, but simply for an instant of that full life in which opposites vanish, in which life and death, time and eternity are united.

Mourners gather at the memorial service for Gabriel’s mother. Gabriel—Geoffrey Rivas-- left the block and his single-parent mother’s home more than twenty years ago. Gabriel went off to become his own opposite, to college, career, and is a rich man today. He’s back with his best friends for the first time since he went into exile. The friends still love him, though they acknowledge back on the block people consider Gabriel an asshole.

Johnny—Sal López-- and Ramona—played to a “T” by playwright Fernandez—never left the neighborhood and are poor as always. They attend the services to honor their life-long neighbor and for the opportunity to touch their long-absent friend, to catch up and pick up where they left off, share the love they never gave away.

Angel—Fidel Gomez--single-parent Ramona’s son, has come at his mother’s insistence. He’s at loose ends. Recently graduated Stanford with an M.A. in literature, he has intellectual skills but none of the smarts his mother and Johnny developed out of a lifetime on the block. Angel has no idea what he’s to become.

Sonia—Lucy Rodríguez--Gabriel’s wife, plays reluctant hostess in the couple’s penthouse digs to people she doesn’t know, nor does Gabriel, not any more. She can’t figure out why Gabriel’s invited them, and is at wit’s end since Juana the maid has defied her employers’ last-minute demands to cook food for the mourners. Never-seen Juana, by the way, is a funny side-bit and running gag.

Johnny and Mona love Gabriel’s memory and step back into Gabriel’s life hungry for communion with the exile. Not that they are not curious to learn if their friend truly is the asshole chisme holds him to be. Their inquiry will shape the evening’s conversation.

Fernandez writes-in a bizarre supernumerary character, Robert Beltran’s The Man, leaving it to the audience to figure out why he’s here at all. The character embodies the voice of Octavio Paz, but he’s not part of the reunion. The Man is the limo driver, who’s insinuated himself into the mourning ritual by dint of having to wait around until the passengers are ready to leave. The driver jokes that his role is to bring along his primo Chelo the Cello player in the limo. The Man is an oddball presence, not wacky, oddly absurd in a semi-good way. The Man consoles the nerdish Angel, offers him consejos on women and love-making (although it’s been a while, he confesses); makes a semi-successful pass at Sonia; provides comic relief when needed. The character occupies a parallel space to the central action, leaving me wondering if The Man is here as foil to the male typologies represented by the loyal husband and father Johnny, the unhappily married disaffected exile Gabriel, the confused young man Angel, whose future depends on making fateful choices. Or is The Man merely the playwright’s indulgence? For sure, The Man offers director Valenzuela his greatest challenge in making the Wednesday premiere a tighter paced, more direct assault on the play’s important themes.

In keeping with Paz’ dictum of exile, Fernandez doesn’t paint Gabriel as a vendido, despite his abandonment of his friends, neighborhood, and mother. The playwright instead paints Gabriel’s sorrowful regret as an echo of Paz’ insight, expelled and impelled back. For Gabriel, the evening offers a chance of rebirth. The characterization encourages but doesn’t make the point that Gabriel is vencido, not vendido. Provided he doesn’t come to blows with Johnny or Mona after they’ve all drunk too much. “Americans drink to forget” Octavio Paz says, “Mexicans drink to confess” the playwright reminds.

Mona’s son Angel, and childless Gabriel, counterbalance one another. Angel is one confused young man. He faces the same choices Gabriel long ago made. Maybe Angel will get it right, if Gabriel didn’t. Angel, like Gabriel, left the neighborhood to better himself. Unlike Gabriel, Angel now has returned to his mother’s home, as witnessed by his presence here, to act the dutiful son. The tangible tension between the two characters feeds on a question Johnny asks Mona. Will Mona tell Gabriel Angel is Gabriel’s son? “He is my son!” insists Mona, dismissing the question altogether. The question hangs over the characters as the first act closes.

Opening night audiences will get to see how the preview helps director and playwright work out some of the kinks that stood out in the Friday try-out performance.

Kink one, the set. Designer François-Pierre Couture lays out the split-level stage floor in stark black and white. Skewed picture frames surround the stage, making a silently apt visual reference for the action. One key scene—the “you gonna tell him?” scene between Johnny and Mona—takes place in the far left back corner. Otherwise the rear part of the stage is curiously underutilized. Up front, I find it disconcerting when characters step off the white landscape onto the black border, as if they are stepping out of bounds, off the stage where the action belongs.

Kink two, the music by Semyon Kobialka. Playing a luscious cello reminiscent of Bach, Kobialka is always on stage in the character of Chelo, whose only role is to be on stage playing cello. It’s a beautifully outrageous theatrical trick, but regretfully detracts from the action by occupying more time than necessary. Another musical trick, rumbling recorded mambos and silhouetted dancers transition from scene to scene. Delicious eye candy but too loud for the loudspeakers, and again, overly long. After the first extended dance number, continuity would benefit from abbreviated transitions. In the second act, Sal López’ Johnny sings his guts out in a wondrous drinking song—uncredited in the program—that could be abbreviated in the interest of cutting the two hour and forty minute performance down to manageable duration. Hence, kink two-and-a-half. Beautiful as the auditorium is, the seats are exceedingly hard on the nalgas.

Kink three is the most problematic, a preachy “author’s message” ending. Solitude has been a tour de force to this final scene, then, it’s as if Fernandez and Valenzuela do not trust their audience to process complexity and make sense of all they’ve experienced. I saw some of this mistrust as the first act ended. Valenzuela stood from his center row seat, looked around the milling house and announced, “It’s an intermission.” The playbill could have mentioned there’d be two acts. Small but telling point for that first act close. Second act, cut that “message” scene, trust the audience to figure out what they’ve just witnessed.

Solitude opens Wednesday, September 9 at the superb Los Angeles Theater Center, on Spring Street in the true heart of the city. Covered, secure parking next door offers a five dollar bargain. The Latino Theater Company runs a four play season. Tickets at twenty-five dollars a seat, add another twenty dollars for a season’s parking, there’s a season total of one hundred twenty dollars. Compare this to the Mark Taper’s nine bucks to park ($23 for valet), thirty-five dollar seats (plus handling charge), predictably ponderous programming, and there’s no better bargain in Los Angeles theatre than the Latino Theater Company. Go for it, gente.

News & Notes

U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project 10th Anniversary Dinner And Korean and Vietnam War-Era Symposium October 2-3, 2009.

Jim Estrada and Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez are organizing a dinner and symposium celebrating the accomplishments of the U.S. Latino & Latino WWII Oral History Project coming out of the University of Texas-Austin.

A $50 dinner ticket gains admission to the Saturday symposia on Korea and Vietnam.

Speakers for Korea:
Silvia Alvarez Curbelo, University of Puerto Rico-- "War, Modernity and Remembrance: The Borinqueneers in the Korean War (1950-1953)"

Allan R. Millett, University of New Orleans--"The U.S. 8th Army, Korea, 1950-1953: Making a One Culture Army from Soldiers of Many Cultures"

Carlos Vélez-Ibañez, Arizona State University-- "Korea and Latinos:
The Invisible Minority in a Forgotten War"

Speakers for Vietnam:
Mark A. Lawrence, University of Texas--"Rewriting the History of the Vietnam War: Political and Diplomatic Dimensions"

Kyle Longley, Arizona State University--"Grunts: The American Combat Soldier in Vietnam"

Jorge Mariscal, University of California at San Diego-- "The Vietnam War is Boring: Young People and Historical Amnesia"

That's September's second Tuesday. A Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except We Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga.


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Viva Liz Vega! said...

will definitely be checking it out. I loved Luminarias and am excited for solitude.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know the list of names of the musical pieces that Semyon Kobialka was playing during the play?