Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I'm told Evelina Fernandez' A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story was originally a series of full-length plays, edited to become just two nights (or one very long) of theatre.  True or not, I must say the "cycle" of one Mexican-American family through various travails of the Depression, a World War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and eventually the personal devastation of the Iraq War makes for a compelling story--a powerful and moving event more than any of these individual stories do.

Not that we don't care about Esperanza, her children and grandchildren and (eventually) her great grandchildren.  On the contrary!  But we come to care for them all the more in the context of their family history, the tale of generations repeating or avoiding mistakes, often creating new ones in the process.  Yet also living, finding love and joy, earning wisdom and identity (often paying a high price), learning secrets and perhaps the greatest of all lessons--to forgive.

The program includes a family tree, but I didn't feel the need for it.  Honestly, the play made it clear enough who was who.  Director Jose Luis Valenzuela did a fine job of blending the cast and action in such a way as to help us understand (kudos to the playwright as well, who provided the essential blueprint without which this simply could not have worked).

Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography
First up is the play Faith, named for one daughter (Esperanza America) of the family matriarch (Lucy Rodriquez). For the most part, this section takes place in Jerome, Arizona from 1940-1944 as Faith's father Silvestre (Sal Lopez) tries to organize a union among the coal miners.  Meanwhile, haunted by a secret shame, his wife tries desperately to control their daughters.  Faith is the rebel, interestingly enough, who eventually breaks from the family to pursue a career in show business in Los Angeles.  Her sister Charity gets into even greater trouble, while youngest Elena ends up married at a very young age.  Throughout, wonderfully real characters full of foibles and charm, dot the stage.

Maybe that is part of the magic that kept me arrested throughout, even as plots that on some level seemed cliche began to unfold.  Because the characters never became cliche, and because of that neither were their stories.  One of my favorites was the singer/promoter Ricardo Flores/Ricky Flowers (Geoffrey Rivas), whose flirtatious ways did not play out as I expected at all.

Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography
Hope takes place in Phoenix, Arizona from 1960-1963.  Interestingly, although the previous and final plays have characters named after them--or vice versa--this does not.  Not a coincidence.  No, not at all.  Here we see a much older Elena and  her children, including Betty (Olivia Cristina Delgado) a teenaged girl totally enamored of JFK.  One of the delightful qualities of this trilogy become impossible to ignore thanks to her.  Namely, the lack of naturalism lurking within and amidst the ordinary.  In the first play, the timing seemed off somehow.  Now, as Betty has phone conversations with both JFK and Fidel Castro, learning in the process life isn't quite as simple as she believed, we venture into magic, the peeling back of the veil.  Fathers may love their children, and be bad fathers.  The bitter, angry girl may find love, in the eyes and heart of a freshman GI named Rudy (Sam Golzari) who seems to wear pink tinted goggles as he readies to head for Vietnam.  A best friend may desert a lonely woman, and perhaps that gives her the strength to break free of deep unhappiness.

A word here about the whole cast.  This is an ensemble, with pretty nearly everyone playing many parts, often the same character in stages of their lives.  I almost cannot emphasize how well these actors do so, such as the playwright Evelina Fernandez who plays the flirtatious not-quite-widow in the first play, and a clearly bi-polar partner in an unhappy marriage in the second.  By the time we reach the third, she's the one of the daughters from the second play, a wonderful portrait of a mature but still troubled character.  Just as Kenneth Miles Ellington Lopez for a short time is the love of young Esperanza's life in play one, and plays his own grandson Bobby in the play two, a closeted gay young man subject to the typical "discipline" of that era. I believed and cared about all these people, not merely in the writing but because the cast breathed life into those words.

Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography
Charity is the final play, set in Los Angeles, California in the year 2005.  Young hope-filled boys from the 1960s are now haunted, sometimes broken men in middle age, including Rudy (Robert Beltran) and Bobby's brother Johnny.  As Rudy's wife Gina watches obsessively the funeral of Pope John Paul II, trying desperately to process the death of her son in Iraq--the wonderful boy whom both parents feel should never have gone to war.  But upstairs the wizened old Esperanza can see that boy, Emiliano, who longs now to give his parents surcease somehow.  Just as she can see her late husband, waiting for her to come with him, so they can be together again.  Aunt Betty (Ella Saldana North) is still around, along with Uncle Bobby now openly gay.  And into this grieving household walks a distant relative, Juan Francisco (Xavi Moreno) from Mexico.  He wants to make a new life here, and his presence sets off ripples, some of them painful.  The truth is, he's a charming kid--the actor, btw, earlier played a true jerk in the cycle but here comes across with all the quiet virtue we sometimes attribute to Clark Kent.

In the end, there is no end.  Which is the whole point.  Characters die, and others are born.  In between the story goes on, and in the end the sequels continue without end, while the prequels stretch back.  Such cannot but be the way of storytelling, when one considers time and memory beyond that of one single life.  So it is with A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story. I felt a little bit blessed to have shared what happened to these people, and in the end wanted to give pretty much all of them a hug.

Part A is Faith followed the first half of Hope.

Part B is the second half of Hope followed by Charity.

A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story plays Thursdays (Part A) at 8pm, Fridays (Part B) at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm (Part A) and 8:30pm (Part B), Sundays at 3pm (Part A) and 6:30pm (Part B) until October 9, 2016 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center downtown, 514 South Spring Street, Los Angeles CA 90013.

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