Sunday, May 26, 2024

American Mariachi (review)

 Spoilers Ahoy!

A friend and I passed through Hollywood and saw a high school named "Bernstein" which given its location must surely have a large number of its students hispanic (this whole area used to be part of Mexico after all).  The high school's mascot was visible from the highway--a chinese dragon.

I cannot imagine anything more American.

American Mariachi by José Cruz González now playing at LATC downtown gave me the same feeling.  This was a story I knew nothing about, not just in terms of the individual characters, but what was happening amid the 1970s with men, women, and Mariachi.  In fact, I hardly knew what Mariachi was.

I know a lot more now, which probably creates the wrong impression.  Here is no somber examination of changing gender roles in the world of music.  Rather it is a heart-felt, delightful, funny, melancholy, as well as exultant revelation.  

Under the direction of José Luis Valenzuela, the ensemble tells a story that seems on one level almost a bit sitcom-esque, yet also tragic.  A broken family consists of father and daughter trying their best to take care of a mother sick, presumably with Alzheimers or something similar.  She isn't "all there" and the fleeting glimpses we get of the past indicates just how vibrantly alive she had been.  One of the few things that can bring her eyes alive and a smile to her lips is music, especially a mysterious song the father will not allow to be played.  

So we are presented with a mystery, and a goal.  What is the story of this song?  And how will the daughter organize a Mariachi to play that music for her, at a time when women were absolutely not allowed to do anything of the kind?

Adding to this lurks the spectre of a memory, of a female mariachi who was the mother's friend when a child, who wanders unseen save by a very few amid ghosts of music, of misunderstandings, of regrets--almost a Greek Chorus but not, because she is absolutely and totally Mexican.  Not a commentary to be heard and understood, not even in poetic form.  Rather she is a sensation to be felt, a thrill of hope and sadness to be heard with one's soul.  Uniquely theatrical, never really explained nor needing to be.  

Like the story.  Yes, people learn things (and we the audience do as well), and they say words that need saying.  But the whole show is really about what if feels like to hear the music, to know some semblance of its meaning (I speak barely a word of Spanish--and never once needed to), to experience seeing these people we know create that music.

With some laughs, none very expensive, along the way.

The very fine ensemble consists of Esperanza America, Vaneza Mari Calderon, Alicia Coca, Fidel Gomez, Crissy Guerrero, Ruth Livier, Sal Lopez, Geoffrey Rivas, Elia Saldana, and Yalitza "Yaya" Vasquez-Lopez.  I am so tempted to call the show a rich tapestry, or an immersive ensemble, or a heightened slice of life.  All these are true, but not enough.  Not a sufficient description.  Like all truly good and wonderful theatre, it really should be experienced.

American Mariachi plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm until Sunday June 9, 2024 at the Los Angeles at 514 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles CA 90013 (two blocks from Pershing Square).

Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Bald Soprano (review)

Spoilers ahoy! 

I told some folks the title of the play I was going to see--The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco.  Most had not heard of it and seemed baffled by the image.

One friend, though, perked up and asked with an incredulous grin "CityGarage is doing that?"

Which actually says rather a lot, right there.  My own reaction echoes theirs pretty perfectly.

Charles Duncombe, manager of CityGarage in Santa Monica welcomed the audience on opening night, describing the play as like Monty Python.  I would have added "but French."  Which could serve as a review, almost.

Ionesco himself called this an "anti-play" in that it has no story, even though it almost succeeds in pretending it does, deliberately.  In fact it makes for a hilarious and savage comment on pettiness and how much of our lives, our expectations, our assumptions don't really make a lot of sense.  Reacting as it was to the theatre scene of a specific time and place, does that make it dated?  Yes.  And yet also makes it timeless.  Because life--that is to say, we mere mortals--remain absurd.

Now, to continue with a simile, Monty Python as a genre (ditto Theatre of the Absurd) has some tricky if subtle demands.  This production, with a bevy of CityGarage regulars, threads most of the needles and as a result gets a lot of laughs.  As well it should!  Nothing makes very much sense, of course.  That is the point! 

In fact describing anything like a "plot" seems almost meaningless!  Rather the performances themselves simply exist amid a weird melee of musings, assertions, questions, revelations, confessions, arguments, accusations, and ramblings--which somehow feel familiar.  Which is also the point!

Insomuch as there is a point.

Standouts in the cast almost entirely focus on the female characters.  Make of that what you will.  Angela Byer and Bo Roberts play a married couple (or are they?) visiting some friends while suffering from a strong bout of amnesia.  The couple they are visiting (or just maybe really are) consist of Andy Kallok and David E. Frank, the latter playing the wife (again, the female characters stand out--or are they female--I'm not sure), while Courtney Brechemin portrays the Maid who tells us all sorts of wonderful weird things.  A fire chief played by Clifford Irvine rounds up the cast--he visits looking for fires, which is his job after all.  That bit almost makes sense. Almost.

That "almost" is one reason the whole thing is so funny.  It makes for a deliciously weird joke, with extra layers of "WTF?" and "Waitaminute" and "Whhhhaaaat?" on top.  

Imagine the story-telling equivalent of Merry-Go-Round after taking a tiny hit of acid, in France and that suggests a little bit of zany humor direct Frederique Michel achieves with this cast.  Imagine if you will Monty Python and the Holy Grail crossovered with a 1950s sitcom of your choice, minus children.  Then stir in very acid humor about the bourgeoisie.  That sounds like a mere formula, doesn't it?  And yet the only "formula" here is silliness, the arch type of silliness of which we all may well be guilty.

Oh, who am I kidding?  We ARE guilty of such.  Sooner or later.  

So come and have a laugh.

The Bald Soprano plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm until June 2, 2024 at City Garage, Bergamot Station, T1 Space, 2525 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90404.