The Romance of Magno Rubio

Lonnie Carter’s The Romance of Magno Rubio is an Obie award-winning adaptation of Carlos Bulosan’s short story that tells the simple story a young, love-struck farm worker in 1930s California Central Valley. He has fallen in love with a woman who is nearly six feet tall and who weighs almost two hundred pounds. At face value, it seems hardly the stuff of which great plays are made, but like some of the best plays out there, it is the sum of its parts that elevates it into a compelling story.

When you consider that this young man is only four feet six inches tall, the comedic aspect of the play starts to take shape. Carter’s play, however, is not content with being simply about the incongruence of mismatched body sizes. Mango Rubio (Jon Jon Briones) is Filipino: “Dark as a coconut; Head small on a body like a turtle’s.” He is also in love with a white woman he met in a personals page on the back of a magazine.

He’s never met her in person, but he’s working hard to send her money and buy her gifts. If you remember (and most people probably don’t – which is also the beauty of this play – Filipinos were subject to Asian Exclusion Acts and were prohibited from buying land, owning houses or even businesses, and were often the victims of beatings and lynchings. When it came to the matters of the heart, the law had much to say: Filipino men could not marry Caucasian women and if they did, the women were liable to lose their American citizenship.

Told partly in rhymed couplets and incorporating traditional Filipino art forms, such as the use of the rattan sticks used by Eskrima, the martial arts of the Philippines, “The Romance of Magno Rubio” is epic storytelling that casts a magical spell on the audience.

Songs (additional lyrics and text by Ralph Pena) and rhythmic movement peppered throughout the script help tell this story involving Magno and his fellow Filipino migrant workers (the manongs). Like Magno, they all have their goals: Prudencio (Antoine Reynaldo Diel) the cook pines for his wife in the Philippines; Nick (Giovanni Ortega) is educated and longs to save up enough money to matriculate himself into a university; Claro (Erick Esteban) is in search of El Dorado – perhaps a legend of hidden gold in the mountains, but a real one in his eyes.

While they tease Magno Rubio for his foolish infatuation with an Arkansas woman, their harsh words are also a reflection of their own attitudes towards the perceived absurdity of achieving their own dreams. Still, like Magno Rubio’s determination and persistence to marry his Clarabelle (Elizabeth Rainey) the indomitable human spirit is not easily broken. Even as he and his fellow countrymen toil away under harsh weather conditions and deplorable behavior from their foreman so that they might earn a place in this country, sometimes that is not enough. For Magno Rubio it comes crashing down when he learns that his Clarabelle is a gold digger. If “The Romance of Magno Rubio” has a message, it is this: it’s not the goal but the journey that counts.

Yet all is not doom and gloom. Despite its darker tones, there is a sense of exuberance that permeates the play. Under Bernardo Bernardo’s direction, the action moves forward briskly, it is very clear that the play’s message is not an indictment of the American dream, but a celebration of the struggle to be included. Bulosan said that he could love America even though it did not love him. It is a romance that anyone who has immigrated to this country can easily grasp.

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Macha Theatre’s Greta’s Cuban Lover

Odalys Nanin knows her Golden Age of Hollywood inside and out. Or, more precisely, she knows her lesbian history as it played out in the private homes of Hollywood royalty.

In this case, it is Mercedes de Acosta’s penchant for long pants and exotic leading ladies that is the subject of Nanin’s 2001 play, “Garbo’s Cuban Lover.” There is a reason why she was known as “a lover to the stars.” She bedded (whether rumored or confirmed – mostly confirmed) among others: Alla Nazimova, Ona Munson, Tallulah Bankhead, Isadora Duncan and Marlene Dietrich, but it is her greatest love, her soul mate Greta Garbo, upon which this play hinges.

The play opens late in de Acosta’s (Odalys Nanin) life as her muse, Isadora Duncan, played by the enchanting Erin Holt, tends to her recent brain surgery. We’re immediately swept back to the early 1920s, at the moment that she meets the Swedish film actress Greta Garbo. Over the course of nearly thirty years, we see their unpredictable relationship flourish – mostly stoic retorts from Garbo (delivered with delightfully dry wit by Elyse Mirto) to de Acosta that “I vant to be alone.”

During that period, de Acosta secures a contract at MGM where she butts heads with Irving Thalberg (John Nagle.) Tension in this Sapphic melodrama turns up a notch when the sexually free Marlene Dietrich (Julia Kostenevich) makes advances on de Acosta. Stuck between true love and lust, de Acosta, naturally, indulges both. Always the free spirit and progressive thinker, she presaged the free love of the 60s counterculture and advocated for same-sex marriage, even at a time when it was inconceivable to do so.

The many layers that make de Acosta such a compelling character are vividly brought to life by an imaginative script, full of humor and pathos that blends fact and fiction into one seamless, plausible narrative.

Shon LeBlanc’s costumes and a simple Art Deco set piece transport us to Hollywood’s Golden Age; and Nanin’s direction (along with co-director Laura Butler) is fluid enough to keep the action flowing like champagne at a Golden Age Hollywood party.

The ensemble cast is superb. Lisa Merkin as Salka Viertel delivers her lines with sublime humor; Mirto is dead-on as Garbo, offering up an amazing performance; as Thalberg, John Nagle, the only male in this cast, holds his own.

Unfortunately, in taking the lead role herself and in contrast to the other nearly flawless performances, the author plays de Acosta with a Ricky Ricardo-slapstick style at odds with the overall tone. In so doing she often diminishes the poignancy of the play.

Happily the rest of this production is solid enough to overcome this miscue. This is a standout revival of a very good play.

Seascape by Edward Albee at Theatre West

Edward Albee’s “Seascape” unfolds at a beachside picnic. Nancy is thrilled and looking forward to retirement along with her husband. Oh, the places they’ll go – a couple of beach bums living along the famous coasts the world has to offer.

There is just one tiny obstacle: Charlie, her husband, does not want to travel. In fact, he doesn’t want to do anything with his life after retirement. This, of course, does not sit well with Nancy and so we’re thrust right into familiar territory – one that only Edward Albee can guide us through, albeit, with a bit more sense of humor than in most of his previous plays. There’s talk of infidelity, mortality, the roles of a husband and wife, and sex. In other words, we’re experiencing nothing new about the relationships between human beings.

That is, until they meet Leslie and Sarah. After an initial period of apprehension between the two couples, they settle into one another and soon learn that both share similar experiences. They compare notes, so to speak, — How many children do you have? etc. — Nancy sees them as a reflection of their younger selves. If not for the fact that Leslie and Sarah are human-sized lizards, this would be beach blanket version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

 

“Seascape” has as much to do with Darwin’s interpretation of evolution as it does with the evolution of relationships, human or otherwise. Theatre West’s production handles these major themes with complete understanding, beginning with a dune set (created by Jeff G. Rack.) There are no signs of human habitation here, other than what Nancy and Charlie bring in their picnic basket. It is as primordial as Albee’s metaphor: a stage set for primordial goop to slither onto the shore and begin the process of evolution right before the audience’s eyes.

Occasionally, we’re reminded that this is indeed set in modern times, cleverly suggested by Yancey Dunham’s lighting design and Charlie Mount’s sound design. Mount, who also helms the production’s direction, takes an organic approach, keeping it natural and unobtrusive, allowing the actors to play out the physicality.

Paul Gunning and Kristin Wiegand are convincing lizards adorned in Gunning’s fantastic costumes and makeup. Still, their humanity – if that is indeed the correct word to use here – shines through, never delving into parody. Arden Teresa Lewis’ Nancy adds a touch of regret to her character while still brimming with hope, while Alan Schack’s Charlie plays off his complacency with dry wit.

It is not often that Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning play gets such a near-flawless production mounted in the Southland. All the pieces fit together, making this an enjoyable treat.

Interview: Errol Morris on his documentary Tabloid

Originally published in Picktainment:

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind when they watch an Errol Morris film that he has a keen eye for the eccentricities that make us tick. His gift for interviewing his subjects by simply pointing a camera and letting them talk has produces award-winning documentaries. In his latest, Tabloid, he delves into the seedier side of humanity by examining the infamous Mormon Sex in Chains Case that took London by storm in the late 1970s. Though that case garnered very little attention in America, it was a precursor to today’s fascination with the downfall of celebrities and the enduring quest for our fifteen minutes of fame.

I know there was a book written in 1984 about Joyce McKinney. How did you find the story? Did you read the book?

I read the book belatedly after I had already interviewed Joyce, but not initially. I think my film is substantially different. I found this story through an AP article in the Boston Globe.

You worked as a private investigator. How did that impact how you do your interviews?

I was a private investigator briefly in Berkeley. I worked for Jack and Sandra Palladino, but very, very briefly in the 1970s. Then my film career, which never has amounted to a film career per se, it just went completely belly up and I had to find a way to earn a living so I worked as a private detective in New York in the early 80s.

How did your interview style come about and does it have a connection to your work as a detective?

I think it works the other way around. I started interviewing murderers. I interviewed Ed Gein and a whole number of different murderers in Northern California and Wisconsin. It goes back so many years. I had a relationship with Ed Kemper. I’d gone to all of these trials. I was going to write a PhD thesis on the insanity plea. In those days there were three mass murders in Northern California – the big three – Ed Kemper, Herbie Mullin, and JohnFrazier. So I had gone to the parts of all three. I was really interested in the insanity plea and writing about them. I started interviewing people. I believe those were my first real interviews.

Then I went back to Wisconsin and started interviewing people there. I developed this whole style of interviewing – I remember the tape recorders. I would play this game where I tried to say as little as possible. I had tapes where I was particularly proud of where my voice wasn’t on the tape. I would see if I could get the person I was interviewing for a full hour without my voice on the tape. The idea was this pure stream of consciousness – The Joycean interview, for lack of a better work. That definitely informed Gates of Heaven and I never included my voice. I wanted to publish a book and no one was really interested in my writing. So I stopped writing for years. Now, I’m publishing all of these books. I have a book coming out in September from Penguin Books. I have a second book coming out on the Jeffrey McDonald murder case. And I have a third book from Chicago Press based on a set of essays I wrote for the New York Times called The Ashtray. So, I’m writing a lot.

I was wondering what books you were reading at the time you were making Tabloid and what books are you reading now?

I’ve always been a fan of Frank Norris. It’s interesting that they’re always pairing The Octopus and The Jungle together and they’re both very disparate. They have nothing to do with each other; they come from different traditions all together. What I didn’t understand is that there was a relationship between Norris and Dreiser. And why was I thinking of Norris and Dreyser? Because Joyce McKinney told me that when she was in high school she had read a short story by Theodore Dreiser called The Second Choice. I got the short story and read it and then started to read Dreiser compulsively. This short story is one of the most amazing short stories.

The story is about a  woman and it starts out with a series of letters written by her lover and it’s clear that he’s not that interested in her as much as she is in love with him and there is a man who wants to marry her, but she’s not particularly interested in him. She doesn’t want to end up like her mother, whose marriage was boring. In the end she settles for the second choice, the guy that she’s not really in love with and she ends up like her mother. The story, to call it bleak, is an understatement. Joyce told me that she had decided that this was not going to happen to her. She was never going to end up like this Dreiser character. The question, this is my question, is whether what happened to Joyce is worse.

When Kirk Anderson was taken away from her, why was California her first choice. Why did she come here immediately after that happened?

I don’t know. Maybe she believed she could earn a living here. Why does anyone want to come out here, you know? I didn’t ask her how she made her living out in California. The whole L.A. story was unknown to me until months after I did the initial interview with Joyce. I’m not sure how much I would have learned just by asking her questions about her life in L.A. She’s not really inclined to talk about it, at least from what I’ve seen and read about her. People love adversarial journalism as if you’re supposed to ask the difficult questions and push them against the wall. I think I would have learned little about Joyce if I had asked those types of questions. But I think the material is there, in the film.

Hollywood Fringe: Sixth Avenue’s Fact & Fiction

Fact & Fiction sets out to do exactly what it intends. It blurs the line between truth and fiction, sometimes The first half, a first-hand personal account of a playwright’s adventures in South America at the age of 17 slowly starts to unfold as he reads from a journal that he kept while staying there. It’s part confessional and coming out story as told by William Nedved, a young exchange student in Brazil. Mostly read directly from his journal, plays out like a stand-up comedy routine. It feels unrehearsed and honest. The second portion of the show features Adam Silver playing Adam Silver. He narrates a near-harrowing experience that takes him from Chicago to Los Angeles. Stalked by an unnerving filmmaker in Chicago, they meet up again by chance on the Redline underneath the City of Angels. Events become more and more unrealistic, while Adam reassures us that, indeed, it is a true story – so true that it almost borders on fiction.

What is interesting about Sixth Avenue’s inaugural production is that it plays with an audience’s perception of what a play should be. This is not a passive show, as one must constantly ask, “What’s going on What’s the catch?” Well, the catch is that events as they occur are never what they seem in retrospect. There is one side and then there is the other, and both are neither right nor wrong. A memory is shaped by our emotional state at the time of the event and can really change over time. In the end, we’re left with questions rather than answers. Especially when the two completely unrelated events are contradicted at one point during the show.

Nedved’s performance, while seemingly unrehearsed and uncomfortable (he is a playwright and not an actor, after all) fits in perfectly with Silver’s polished monologue. In the end, these very simple narratives seep into our consciousness and leave us lost in thought.

Bash’d A Gay Rap Opera at Celebration Theatre

An all-rap opera would seem a bit of an odd choice for musical theatre – even a gay one. But when you consider that any number of rap incarnations date back a few centuries and that it draws closer to its political roots, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that theatre and rapping would eventually cross paths to tell this story.

Although BASH’d isn’t a new concept, it is an ideal choice for this call to arms to our gay community to stand up and take action. The action, of course, is that of gay marriage – no less a hot button issue right now, both in the U.S. and in Canada, where this piece originated.

Written by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckrow, the piece is loosely based on the escalation of hate crimes in Alberta, Canada during the gay marriage debate of 2005. You could say that it borrows from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a Romeo-on-Romeo twist.

This is a wonderful and joyous production from Celebration theatre, although it is not for those who still think theatre is a passive sporting event, and it is definitely not for those who proclaim theater’s demise whenever a younger generation finds a new voice and a new way to tell familiar stories.

Even before the show begins, DJ Jedi spins his beats to an enthusiastic audience. By the time the show starts, the crowd is in a festive mood. Feminem (Sean Bradford) and T-Bag (Chris Ferro) take the stage, Greek chorus-style, to introduce us to Jack and Dillon (played by the same actors respectively.) These characters are, indeed star cross’d lovers as they meet at a club, fall in love, eventually get married, and then face the realities of hate crimes.

Along the way, the play offers up plenty of laughs, in particular, the extremely funny bit that takes place at the clubs where T-Bag and Femimen nail (no pun intended) every gay stereotype they run into. Twink to hairy bear, no stereotype is left unscathed. Minimal props Michael O’Hara) and costumes (Naila Aladdin Sanders) is all that is needed to adorn this world.

BASH’d is well executed from start to finish. The rap is in your face and loud (as it should be) as it takes us on a humorous journey, but with some serious turns in just the right direction. Neither pandering or playing for melodrama, Bradford and Ferro take us on an honest emotional journey. The music (by Aaron Macri) is evocative of one such white rapper with those tight raps and Ferro is eerily reminiscent of Eminem.

Politically, this rap opera is just as aggressive in message as are those prominent rappers from whom they borrow. As African-America rappers have reclaimed the N-word for themselves, so too have we been commanded to take “faggot” and make it our own. It’s an extreme objective to be sure, but not one so far-fetched considering the extent to which our own civil rights have been violated.

Director/choreographer Ameenah Kaplan knows his way around the Celebration stage and employs Evan Bartoletti’s set, consisting of boxes that double as an urban landscape, to firmly plant us into this world of gay love and hetero hate. Bradford and Ferro switch seamlessly into multiple characters with little effort and inventive choreography. It goes to show that having a young and energetic cast need not be peppered with gratuitous nudity to draw in a West Hollywood crowd… At least, not anymore.

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On a bittersweet note this is Matthew A. Shepperd’s last show before stepping down as Artistic Director of Celebration. His challenge — distancing his company from the success of Naked Boys Singing!, which made Celebration West Hollywood’s go to theatre for nudie-boy plays — ends on a high note.

He set out to take this theatre in a new direction. This gutsy production is a fine example of his taking the risk of failure by challenging a proven formula, and triumphing.

Performances through July 23 at Celebration Theater, 7051 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. For tickets, go to http://www.celebrationtheatre.com/onstage.html.

Film: Interview with Andrew Rossi and Times Reporter David Carr

Follow the link below or click on image to read an exclusive interview with director Andrew Rossi and New York Times Reporter David Carr. In Rossi’s film Page One: Inside the New York Times, the director chronicles the transformation of the media industry at its time of greatest turmoil. Andrew Rossi and New York Times’ intrepid media reporter, David Carr, shed some light on the future of online journalism.

Page One: Inside The New York Times

HF: The Sum of My Parts at Elephant Studio Stage Theatre

The cool thing about the Fringe Festival here in Hollywood is that everyone who is willing to put it out there has a voice. Michael Mullen is trying to get his voice heard because his story is a little different than most stories. The Sum of My Parts is Mullen’s one-man monologue – a quest, if you will, to find his identity. You see, Mr. Mulligan believes that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body. As he talks about his youth growing up in Texas under attack from homophobes in school and an ultra-religious mother, he takes us on his personal journey from Texas, to Boston, to the Southwest, and finally, to Los Angeles – a place where everyone is accepted, whether they like it or not.

Mullen’s journey to womanhood, as you will, is not an easy one. Not even after arriving in Hollywood. This is not a singular story, but The Sum of My Parts is definitely a touching one. Part confessional and part stand up comedy routine, this show captures the essence of Michael Mullen as a young performer not so much seeking an identity but seeking acceptance. His one-man show is inspired by his video “I Feel Like A Woman,” which was recognized as an official honoree at the 2010 Webby Awards for “Public Service and Activism.” He tells of playing with dolls as a kid and playing dress up in his mother’s closet. With self-effacing humor, Mullen takes jabs at himself and those who have caused him pain. The minimal set consisting of store mannequins decked out in fabulous garb provide the necessary props and costumes for him to transform himself into any character he wishes. On the small stage, Mullen is larger than life, occasionally making eye contact with the audience. His story is compelling enough and the themes are universal despite the specificity of his plight.

Is the show perfect? No. But then again, it doesn’t have to be. For sure, it is a work in progress, since Mr. Mullen looks to be far too young to have lived a full life that is rife with anecdotes and the secrets to life. When it works, he is a soul bared on stage, vulnerabilities and all. The pure honesty fills the stage and affects everyone in the audience. The Sum of My Parts works well as a monologue because it is written from an honest place as opposed to written for the stage to be interchangeably performed by any actor. That is its strength. At its worst, it is a work in progress that is not too far off the mark. With a few more years and some more self-reflection, it can only get better. Perhaps this time it will be told by a woman? It remains to be seen. In the meantime, this show is a life-affirming kick off to the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

The 2011 Hollywood Fringe Festival Coverage

I am really excited to be covering the 2nd Annual Hollywood Fringe Festival. After what has been perceived as a disastrous theatre community by skeptics here in Los Angeles as well as throughout the rest of the U.S., it is a sigh of relief that LA is finally fighting back. I firmly believe that there is a viable theatre community right in the heart of the movie world. As Neil LaBute stated in the past, theatre in Los Angeles has taken a back seat to its glitzier, wealthy cousins Film and Television.

I can only hope that the tide has turned at last. With close to 200 artistic groups and over 800 performances, workshops, exhibitions, and events throughout central Hollywood, there is certainly a lot of theatre going on.

I will be covering as much as I can cover this year. Please follow my reviews and comment if you have attended any performances. I would love to hear from those theatre goers who enjoyed a great performance.

The Old Settler at International City Theatre

With nearly the poignancy of a Tennessee Williams drama, John Henry Redwood’s “The Old Settler”, now onstage at the International City Theatre in Long Beach touches on all the aspects of a good old-fashioned love story.

The play — based in part on Redwood’s family history — tells the story of two older sisters who share a walk-up in 1940s Harlem. They live as comfortably as any black woman could live in that era in that city. Social issues of the time are certainly addressed in the play, but at the heart of it, this is a love story.

But this is no syrupy confection of fairy tale romances and happy endings; Redwood’s well-balanced play juggles comedy and serious undertones of reality into a complete drama, providing a very satisfying evening at the theatre.

Elizabeth (Veralyn Jones) is an older woman who’s never been married. In Harlem patois, she’s an “old settler,” a woman who’s reached the age of 30 without getting married and without any romantic prospects for the future.

Her sister Quilly ((Karen Malina White) isn’t faring so well, either. Though she’s been married before, her husband has run off with another woman, leaving her alone. When Elizabeth takes in a boarder of similar circumstance – a young man from South Carolina – Quilly objects openly to the arrangement.

Called merely “Husband,” the young man (Ryan Vincent Anderson) seems naïve – a good old country boy in the big city in search of a girlfriend who ran off to New York for the seductions of bright lights and endless possibility. He’s in for a rude awakening when he finds that his girl, Lou Bessie (Tarina Pouncy) has changed her name and is running around with an unsavory Harlem crowd.

Though their relationship starts out platonically, Elizabeth and Husband seem perfect for each other, even given the wide gap in ages. The relationship blooms, testing the bond between the sisters, who share a past that drove them apart once before, eight years earlier.

Jones and White are pitch-perfect as sisters, enjoying a wide range of affection for one another on stage. Jones is more reserved but playful while White takes the witty lines and owns them as if they popped right out of her head on the spot. Though Jones and White enjoy comedic turns, the real comedy comes from Anderson and Pouncy, who play backwoods naiveté perfectly.

Thanks to Caryn Desai’s tight hold on the script, the characters move about freely and unrestrainedly. Although the play takes place in the gritty world of Harlem, the set by Kurt Boetcher (complete with laundry hanging across fire escapes) has a pristine quality that never really gives us a feeling of actually being there, but then again, Redwood’s bittersweet seeks only to evoke a bygone era that, in the abstract, makes us yearn for a simpler time.

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