Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Christian Barillas

“Native Gardens”: Do Great Performances Balance Uncomfortable Script?

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(L-R) Bruce Davison, Frances Fisher, Jessica Meraz and Christian Barillas in Native Gardens at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]

There is a fine line between humor which skewers privilege and prejudice by making its claims sound as ridiculous as they are, and writing which pronounces the same beliefs and then does a kind of wink to indicate that, really, it was said to be funny. One is reminiscent of, say, “All In The Family,” the other is not. That the latter appears as much as the former in Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse, make it slightly uncomfortable to call the play funny, even though humor is definitely one of its elements. Still, as has happened before, one wonders how many in the audience will find affirmation of their own beliefs rather than what is intended to be laughable.
This is not the fault of the actors, who play the thing to the hilt and thanks to solid direction offer up both timing and structure intended to give the piece its place as a comedy. Still, one is left ambivalent about whether laughing is buying into things one would rather not, or actually an honest response to a good joke.
Pablo and Tania, a young and successful Latinex couple (he’s a lawyer, she’s finishing up her PhD), have just bought a somewhat run-down house in an upper crust neighborhood outside of Washington, DC. Their neighbors, Frank and Virginia, a late-middle-aged white couple with a grown son, have been in their home for a long time, and are stalwart elements of the neighborhood. Frank is semi-retired and an avid gardener. Virginia is a prominent engineer.
As they meet, there seems hope of an easy and neighborly friendship. Then Pablo discovers that the fence all have agreed should be replaced between their two back yards is actually in the wrong place. Some of Frank and Virginia’s yard doesn’t belong to them.
Christian Barillas, as Pablo, embodies the intensity of the young legal mind and the fighting spirit of the up-and-coming immigrant with a genuine sense of impetuous thrill at what he are achieving. Jessica Meraz, as the American-born Tania, voices the claim to nationhood so often necessarily heard by those of Mexican descent whose upbringing has been rooted in the US, balanced against a body language evincing a genuine niceness which wants a peaceful coexistence with those around her, at least most of the time.
Bruce Davison, as the alternately obsessed and unfocused Frank, has terrific and subtle timing which creates great humor even as he utters things which sometimes make one feel guilty laughing. Frances Fisher gives Virginia the intensity of the self-made professional, used to a fight and unwilling to concede as a matter of principle – a woman confident in knowing the people who will help get things done.
Binding these together, in a stroke of genius by director Jason Alexander, is the trio of Julian Armaya, Richard Biglia and Bradley Roa II as gardeners who both move stage elements as the border fight wages on, and provide immensely entertaining announcements of change of date and time of day. These characters’ joie de vivre helps to keep the light touch necessary in a play which becomes increasingly about race, age, and identity in a time when these are such a hot-button issues.
Looked at intellectually, this is a huge metaphor for this nation, its walls, its increasing xenophobia, its war between entitlement and access, and the easy condemnation of one age group by another. As such, it is potent, though the tacked-on ending seems yet another underscoring apology for everything it has otherwise been. Still, it is – on occasion – quite funny, it is beautiful to look at thanks to David Meyer’s terrific garden set, and nobody can argue it isn’t superbly acted. Now if only one didn’t have to wonder if laughing was affirming something one would rather not affirm.
What: “Native Gardens”. When: through September 30, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with one 8 p.m. performance on Tuesday, September 25. Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: prices start at $29. Info: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
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A Polished Twist: Shakespeare’s Star-crossed Lovers at ANW

Will Bradley and Donnla Hughes are ANW's Romeo and Juliet

Will Bradley and Donnla Hughes are ANW’s Romeo and Juliet

One of the pleasures (or, if you are a purist, one of the annoyances) of modern Shakespearean productions is the license directors feel to move the setting, time period and circumstances of the characters to a more recognizable – or more symbolic – space. Sometimes such a shift becomes legendary (one thinks of the Orson Welles’ “Julius Caesar” of the 1930s, set in Mussolini’s Italy). Sometimes it can enhance a sense of connection with the material. Sometimes it isn’t quite as successful.

Take as example the intense “Romeo and Juliet” at A Noise Within. There, director D’amaso Rodriguez has amassed an impressive cast, and brought the story out of the halls of wealthy Verona into the sleazy back streets of a Mob-dominated world. To some extent, this works well, right down to Romeo’s initial resemblance to Banksy, but between an overly busy set and the break-neck speed of line delivery, some of the poetics get lost in the translation.

No denying the show’s intensity. That’s a good thing. And the words are there: with rare exceptions, Rodriguez avoids the slashed script which so often is used to woo modern audiences to the antique language. The use of doubling or even tripling among the lesser characters also works well, creating a focus on the protagonists while keeping the crowd onstage at a reasonable size. Indeed, Shakespeare did the same.

But, particularly in the early stages of the play, those words are spoken at such speed that if you don’t already have the show nearly memorized (which I admit I do) you miss much of that lovely language because you just can’t process the words fast enough, even with the actors’ universally lovely diction. And the set, though in practical terms it works well, has been graced with so much completely random graffiti art (that is, nothing actually related to the script) that it becomes a noise distracting from the proceedings. Yet, all these issues do not mean the show isn’t worth watching or the interpretation given isn’t immediate and valid.

Will Bradley plays a somewhat stringy, intense Romeo with an impulsive, occasionally dark passion that works well in this setting. Donnla Hughes manages to carry off both the gangly awkwardness of Juliet’s barely-teen self while still finding the depths of that acid test of all Juliets, the potion scene. Indeed, her wrestling seems more organic to Juliet than is often true.

Robertson Dean, inexplicably barefoot throughout, makes a humble, annoyed, and finally desperate Friar Laurence. Rafael Goldstein, as Mercutio and Christian Barillas as Tybalt find the sweet spot in their dueling scene between enmity and boredom. This makes their deaths particularly tragic. Indeed, Goldstein’s performance romances the wit of his character, making him more central and more sympathetic than is often true.

In the dual role of the Prince and Juliet’s nurse, June Carryl creates two separately defined persons of distinctive character – severe and controlled as the Prince, fulsome and heartfelt as the nurse. Charlotte Gulezian makes a fine friend and occasional confidante as Romeo’s buddy Benvolio, Amir Abdullah gives Paris more presence and more pathos than usual, and Alan Blumenfeld as the Don-like Capulet exudes beneficent but potentially ferocious command. Jill Hill handles Lady Capulet with a style which makes her stand out more than sometimes, though the interpretation’s comparative crassness takes a bit of getting used to.

Designer Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes fit the setting impressively, and add to the unified vision of the production. Her back alley set design also works well, as Romeo ascends dumpster lids to Juliet’s window and Capulets and Montagues fight amidst the strewn trash. Only the overdone graffiti sometimes distracts.

So, in total, this “Romeo and Juliet” is largely a success. The acting is strong, the empathy clear and the tragedy palpable. Rodriguez has a sense of the humanity of the characters in anything he directs, which keeps the potential for stagey-ness at bay. For something like Shakespeare to appeal to a new age, this is absolutely key.

Young people in the audience – and there were many when I saw it – “get” this version more thoroughly than they would a doublet-and-hose production. Keeping the Bard vital to each age, and real, is elementally important, no matter how many people want to put his work in an antique box. In this, A Noise Within’s “Romeo and Juliet” proves one of their most successful recent Shakespearean ventures.

What: “Romeo and Juliet” When: In repertory through May 8, 7 p.m. April 17 and May 8, 7:30 p.m. April 7 and 28, 8 p.m. March 18 and 19, April 8, 23 and 29, with 2 p.m. matinees on March 19, April 17 and 23, and May 8. Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $44 general, $20 student rush one hour before performance Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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