Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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As someone who has taught history for a few decades, there is no doubt that the ugliness of the Japanese Internment is one of the several inexcusable black marks on our American story. At a time when the fate of immigrants and refugees has been put into question by some elements of government yet again, it is good to go back and look at the ugliness of the past, if only to warn and mobilize those in the present.
From a theatrical standpoint, what matters is how this is addressed. Should it be a history lesson, a polemic, or a smaller, human story which underscores the wrenching effects of a historic wrong? In Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart,” now at the Mark Taper Forum, this last proves far more powerful than some of the other recent attempts to refocus our collective memory on the concentration camps on US soil where people were held for the simple sin of being of Japanese descent.
The script is strong, most of the time – more consistently engaging and personal than many of Valdez’s works. The production is as well. A couple of performances, and an awkward tacked-on ending mar this piece, and they do so in ways which pull one out of the story and jeopardize the very empathy the play otherwise engenders.
The play is the story of Japanese farm family in what is now the Silicone Valley just as World War II begins, and the Mexican family living on their property, helping them work the land. Both fathers are immigrants, struggling to balance their old traditions with the changing world their children inhabit. They are proud, if reluctantly interdependent men fashioning an American life.
When Benjamin Montaño falls for Thelma Yamaguchi, it flies in the face of all those family expectations. Thelma is in line for an arranged marriage with her brother’s roommate at Cal, and between cultural disconnects and lack of independent income, Benjamin has little chance. Then Pearl Harbor changes everything.
With the Yamaguchi’s farm in jeopardy, and arrests and internments looming, the young couple elopes, but then must cope with Benjamin’s agreement to keep the farm going while his wife is shipped off with her family to a desolate area of Wyoming. How the two families experience war, changing status, and the sheer unreasonableness of their lives’ shifts makes history come alive.
As Benjamin, Lakin Valdez shows passion, character, and pain as he grows into responsibilities beyond what he expected. Melanie Arii Mah gives Thelma the awkward stance of someone rooted both in American culture and the traditions and rigid roles of her parents’ world.
Likewise, the two mothers – Joy Osmanski as Thelma’s, and Rose Portillo as Benjamin’s – have an authenticity in their portraits of women deeply concerned for their families and wrenched by the choices made. Also worthy of note are Justin Chen as the Yamaguchi’s college student son, Moises Castro as the teenaged younger son of the Montaños, and Scott Keiji Takeda as the privileged city boy arranged to marry Thelma.
Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between these other naturalistic and connected performances and that of Christy Sandoval, as Benjamin’s younger sister, and Randall Nakano as Thelma’s father. Both seem more rooted in the implied tradition of Kabuki, speaking their lines with an artificial, bombastic quality which simply doesn’t fit the rest of the production, at least until Nakano’s has a health issue which must be treated more naturally. Granted, there are other hints of Kabuki, including Mariela Arteaga and Michael Naydoe Pinedo’s work as Kurogo – the anonymous persons in black who handle prop and set changes and (at least in this case) provide the occasional necessary extra character in the story. Still, Sandoval and Nakano interrupt the rhythm and reality of the play.
One is surprised at this, given that the playwright is also the director. His long history with El Teatro Campesino (an associated producer of this piece) means he is no neophyte at directing, and this is his play to interpret and work into a cohesive whole. What works so well most of the time trips up on these two performances.
Still, there is much to recommend here. The use of shðji screens and projected environments by scenic designer John Iacovelli, especially when combined with the representational actions of the Kurogo, make for powerful visuals and set the tone for the struggles within. Lupe Valdez’s costumes set the period and economic structures with subtle ease.
And, of course, there is the terrifically important tale of two immigrant cultures in California, and their joint response to the terrible inequalities of their time. As such it proves particularly powerful, and rather hopeful.
What: “Valley of the Heart” When: through December 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 8 p.m. Monday, November 19 (and no performance on Thanksgiving). Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $99. Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org Read more of this post
“Zoot Suit” is now extended until March 2, when it absolutely must close.
The return of Luis Valdez’s groundbreaking musical “Zoot Suit” to the Mark Taper Forum is less of a theatrical milestone than it is a major cultural event. Centered on the actual events revolving around the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and the Zoot Suit Riots – both “forgotten” parts of Los Angeles’ World War II history until this show opened in 1978 – the tale celebrates the culture of Mexican-American Los Angeles during that repressive time with a gravelly pride.
Still, one must stand back from the importance of the vehicle to also examine the production itself. Directed as before by its creator, Luis Valdez has worked to keep it true to the original in many strategic ways, from the carved newspaper opening to the iconic pose of El Pachuco – the symbol of Chicano masculinity which has remained central in Los Angeles’ Latino consciousness.
The blend of culture and language is also still central. Interestingly, this has always included a mixture of languages: Spanish, local slang, and English. For those who are familiar with all of these, and many Angelinos are, there is an immediate connection. For those who are less familiar, there may be a certain disconnect but also a chance to bump up against a vibrant part of the L.A. community in a most enthusiastic way. When the show was first produced, the program included a glossary of terms for the uninitiate. That is missing this time, but most of the audience may not need it.
Told through a combination of fact, fantasy and music, the story is elemental Los Angeles. During the period of World War II, a series of events led to the arrest of over 100 Mexican-American young men for the death of a single man near a reservoir euphemistically called Sleepy Lagoon. Their trial was less about a single murder and more about a condemnation of an entire people and an entire lifestyle, and is now well documented as a gross miscarriage of justice. The fight to defend the young men, and then to overturn their convictions, provides a backdrop for a love letter to a way of being and an innate toughness which carried a people through this very difficult time.
The cast divides into those playing the historical figures of the story, and those representing an elemental force which stood up against the inequities of the time period. Matias Ponce is Henry Reyna, the leader of a “boy gang” whose entire crew ends up arrested for something they didn’t do. As such, Ponce underscores Henry’s resolute sense of self, his sense of family, and his ability to keep himself together in the midst of a nearly hopeless situation. Standouts among Henry’s fellow zoot suiters include Raul Cardona exuding a particular maturity as the married father “Smiley,” Oscar Camacho as the impulsive Joey, and Caleb Foote as Tommy, the non-Hispanic member of the gang.
Melinna Bobadilla radiates with an innate innocence as Henry’s girlfriend, while Stephani Candelaria and Andres Ortiz make Henry’s siblings a study in contrasts. Brian Abraham gives a gravitas to the lawyer whose ardent defense of his young and mistreated clients seems as potent today as it does in its historical context. Tiffany Dupont, as the woman who coordinates communications between the legal team, walks that fine line for any woman of the period between femininity and official status.
But surrounding all of this, and more, are the more symbolic figures, and their presence ends up defining much of the action. Fiona Cheung, Holly Hyman and Mariela Arteaga form the singing Pachuca Trio, a multi-ethnic representation of L.A. itself. And, of course, there is Demian Bichir as El Pachuco, that central narrator and representation of the larger theme of the piece. Bichir has the moves and style down pat, though the directorial choice to have him speak in a gravelly voice (except when imitating others) has the side effect of making him often very difficult to understand. This is a pity as he is the glue holding the show and this production together.
The music, an eclectic mix of big band hits of the era with original songs and instrumentals by Lalo Guerrero and Daniel Valdez, and the upbeat swing choreography of Maria Torres add to the sometimes frenetic tone of the show, which proves energetic from start to finish. One should not really call this a musical, in the classic sense, in that there are no soulful songster moments but rather an undercurrent which creates the atmosphere of time and place.
All of which is not news to those who remember “Zoot Suit” from its first incarnation 39 years ago. For a new generation, reviving this story – which is simplified history, to some extent, but important nonetheless – puts modern struggles of identity and inclusion into context more startlingly than one would wish. However, despite a stated sense that this piece of theater is intended to speak to the larger issue of the Hispanic/Latino story in the US, it remains ultimately a story of Los Angeles and the particular consciousness of a large portion of our community. There it is received as golden, but one wonders how well that translates to the larger sphere.
What: “Zoot Suit” When: now extended through March 28, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 S. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $109 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org