When was the last time a brand-new trilogy was successfully produced on an LA stage?
Anyone who follows LA theater closely might be tempted to cite Tom Burmester’s powerful War Cycle, a creation of Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble. Its three plays unspooled between 2006 and 2011 at the Powerhouse in Santa Monica. However, the premiere of part one of The War Cycle actually occurred at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2005, so that one installment of the trilogy wasn’t “brand-new” by the time it opened in Santa Monica.
Now try this one — when was the last time a brand-new trilogy was successfully produced on an LA stage above the 99-seat level?
I haven’t done enough research to answer that question with great confidence, but nothing immediately came to mind — until now.
With the opening of Evelina Fernandez’s Faith at Los Angeles Theatre Center, Fernandez’s Mexican Trilogy is now a part of LA stage history. Not only is it an original trilogy, but it’s a trilogy that addresses what is perhaps the most significant social phenomenon facing LA in the 21st century — the intersection of the cultures of the United States and Mexico.
In articles such as this one in LA STAGE Times last week, Fernandez emphasizes the “American” side of this intersection so much that I was beginning to wonder why the trilogy is called A Mexican Trilogy. It still seems that a better title would be A Mexican American Trilogy. No scenes are set in Mexico during the second and third parts of the trilogy.
However, Faith — which covers the first part of Fernandez’s loosely autobiographical narrative but which is actually the third of the plays to be produced — does start with a couple scenes in Mexico, approximately a century ago.
In the first, we see 15-year-old Esperanza (Olivia Cristina Delgado) going through a coming-of-age ceremony. The words we hear are not Fernandez’s. They’re a brief excerpt of an English translation of a liturgy originally spoken in Nahuatl and brought to the attention of the rest of the world in the Florentine Codex, a landmark collection of 16th-century ethnographic research by a Franciscan priest, Bernardino de Sahagún. I didn’t know this from seeing the play — there are no explanatory program notes — but the source is attributed in the script.
This scene effectively establishes this family’s very Mexican roots. And the second scene establishes one of the less obvious reasons why Esperanza and her new husband leave Mexico for el norte. Actually, there is so much left unsaid in these first two scenes that I wouldn’t be surprised if Fernandez eventually decides to add a fourth play about the very dramatic developments in Mexico that prompted the journey to — as it turned out, Jerome, Arizona.
But most of Faith is set in the final Depression years before World War II and during the war itself. Esperanza (now played by Lucy Rodriguez) is in her 40s, her husband (Sal Lopez) works and sometimes agitates in a copper mine, and their three teenage daughters are itching to be as all-American as possible, as reflected in their desire to emulate the era’s hottest singing group, the Andrews Sisters.
Their musical interests provide much of the spur for the plot, as well as the general atmosphere of the production. Esperanza is dead set against any thoughts of her daughters trying to be professional singers. The oldest of the girls, Faith (Esperanza America), will settle for nothing less, and her first step is making sure that she and her sisters perform in a talent show hosted by a local radio personality (Geoffrey Rivas).
Faith spurns her would-be suitor (Xavi Moreno), who eventually migrates to the youngest daughter Elena (Delgado in a second role). The middle daughter Charity (Alexis de la Rocha) has two loves — the voice of FDR on the radio and young Freddie (Matias Ponce) in real life. But one of these two men is about to go to the front lines of World War II. Providing commentary from the sidelines is Esperanza’s best friend, Lupe (playwright Fernandez herself).
Just as Hope, the second part of the trilogy (and the first to be produced, just a year ago), uses the popular music of its era — the early ’60s — so does Faith use the swingin’ sounds of the big band era, as well as a few musical moments mexicanos. In fact, the musical texture sounds so convincing — and so professional, in the case of America’s performance as Faith — that the atmosphere of the production transforms from what might otherwise resemble that of a small-town Mexican American version of Neil Simon’s own autobiographical trilogy (also set in the ’30s and ’40s) into a quasi-jukebox musical. The musical director is Rosino Serrano.
Although Faith is set primarily in Arizona, a couple scenes are set in LA — which is represented in the dialogue of the play as a virtual Oz, the much-anticipated climax of this family’s journey. Of course, those of us who have seen the third part of the story, Charity, know that not everything came up roses for the descendants of the Faith characters who lived in LA in the early 21st century.
As with the other installments of the trilogy, José Luis Valenzuela directs, paying careful attention to the play’s comedy and its tenderness. He’s the artistic director of Latino Theater Company, which produced the trilogy, and he and Fernandez are married. It’s likely that it would have been much harder to produce a trilogy like this outside the comfortable conditions of a close-knit company.
In fact, if next year’s Radar L.A. festival is looking for local companies capable of festival-worthy production of company-devised work, presenting the entire trilogy in rep would be a great idea. However, before that event, or before whatever occasion allows the trilogy to be produced as a single unit, I hope that Charity receives the rewrites it needs. Judging from the original productions of all three plays, Charity is the weakest link in a fascinating chain.
Faith, Los Angeles Theatre Center Theatre 3, 514 S. Spring St., LA. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Nov. 11. www.thelatc.org. 866-811-4111.
***All Faith production photos by Pablo Santiago
During intermission at the Production Company’s Henry VI Part I the other night, at the Lex in Hollywood, I was enjoying the night air when actors from New American Theatre’s Julius Caesar walked by in their dark suits (their Julius Caesar is in modern dress). Their own theater, the McCadden Place, is adjacent to the Lex. Apparently they had exited in the rear of their own space and had to walk around the Lex in order to get into position to make their next entrance, from the rear of the McCadden Place.
Not long after all of them had gathered outside the door of the McCadden Place, they suddenly raised a loud ruckus and re-entered their own half of the building while shouting “We will be satisfied!” I’d guess it was the moment when the Roman rabble was demanding an explanation of the murder of Julius Caesar. Another Henry VI theatergoer — apparently unaware that Julius Caesar was being staged next door — wondered what was going on. Having seen the Julius Caesar myself the previous weekend, I filled him in.
Then intermission ended, and I re-entered the world of Henry VI, Part I.
What a Shakesperience.
Yes, LA’s small theaters are having a Shakespeare moment. Besides those two productions, I also took in another Julius Caesar recently — the first production of the new Griot Theatre of the West Valley in Encino.
Let’s discuss the two Julius Caesars first. Both of them feature a few women playing men’s roles, but Malik B. El-Amin’s Griot production goes much farther in that direction than Jack Stehlin’s for New American Theatre.
In Encino, one of the main roles, Cassius, is played by Cynthia Beckert — and she plays it more bitch than butch. Actually, we can’t discuss the Griot production much further without pointing out that El-Amin was inspired (according to a program note) to “excite new audiences” who “might not have previously considered coming to see a work of Shakespeare” by using the medieval fantasy books and TV series Game of Thrones “as the backdrop of our story.” He hopes “our homage to Game of Thrones will result in a rich experience for Shakespeare enthusiasts as well as those less familiar with his work.”
OK, but what about those of us who are totally unfamiliar with Game of Thrones?
Not wanting to spend a lot of time researching Game of Thrones before I saw this production, I was left somewhat baffled by certain choices, but I’m assuming that some of the unusual costumes and hairdos reflect characters or situations in the TV series.
Perhaps that also explains El-Amin’s decision to have Beckert’s womanly Cassius and Jake Suffian’s manly Brutus address each other as “brother” and “sister” — but then eventually to kiss in a way that goes beyond far any standard sibling kisses on the cheek.
While Game of Thrones fans conceivably might eat this up, allow me to make a point from a more Shakespeare-oriented point of view. Why, during the famous double speeches to the crowd by Brutus and then Mark Antony, is the crowd kept completely in the dark? Shouldn’t we see as well as hear the Roman rabble? The play’s commentary on the ease with which the crowd is swayed by carefully crafted rhetoric is one of its most enduring legacies — witness the ease with which the tide turned to Mitt Romney following his sudden return to “moderate Mitt” in the first debate.
It’s possible the apparently limited lighting resources of the company (in a converted room in a church) might have had something to do with that decision. Before the play and during intermission, the house lights glare down on the audience rather uncomfortably, and because of the staging of the double speeches, perhaps the only way to prevent a similar effect was to keep the crowd in the dark.
Also, the Griot production is literally bloodless — during depictions of bloody deeds, we see no suggestion of red fluid. Blood, of course, doesn’t have to be literal to register — in the New American Theatre version, red gloves elegantly play the role of blood. But eliminating any sign of blood completely sanitizes the violence.
I hope Griot works through its kinks. The west Valley is one of the most theatrically underserved neighborhoods in LA, especially when compared to the wealth of professional theater in the east Valley. And, thanks to El-Amin’s own experience having a cochlear implant in 2010, the company appears to be taking several steps to reach deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences.
Meanwhile, back at New American Theatre, Stehlin’s production would be my choice for someone who wants to see Shakespeare, as opposed to a Game of Thrones version of Shakespeare. The modern dress adds a contemporary patina without resorting to incestuous kisses between Cassius and Brutus, and the entire production is well-spoken and propulsively paced.
You could say the same for Christopher William Johnson’s staging of Henry VI, Part I by the Production Company. The play itself isn’t nearly as strong as Julius Caesar — to the extent that it’s hardly ever seen. This production didn’t make me wish I could see it more often, but I enjoyed seeing it more than I probably would have enjoyed my umpteenth production of some of Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits. The cross-gender casting of a young and high-voiced Synden Healy in the title role of a child king worked well, as did appealing performances by JB Waterman and Tina Van Berckelaer as the Dauphin and Joan or Arc. Although the French are supposed to be the villains here, they’re more interesting than the perfunctory good guys, as villains often are.
Is there more sword fighting here than in any other Shakespeare play? Not having seen Henry VI, Parts 2 or 3, I can’t really say. Many of the swords here are wielded by women. A bio in the program notes that the fight choreographer, Jen Albert, is “is an original company member of Babes With Blades, Chicago’s first and only all-female stage combat theater company.”
Julius Caesar, Griot Theatre of the West Valley at Bethel Encino, 17500 Burbank Blvd.. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Dark Nov. 2. Closes Nov 11. www.griottheatre.org. www.plays411.com/juliuscaesar. 323-960-7740.
***All Julius Caesar production photos by Eugene Powers
Julius Caesar, New American Theatre at McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. Sun Oct 28, 7 pm. Sat Nov 3, 10 and 17, 8 pm. www.NewAmericanTheatre.com. 310-701-0788.
Henry VI, Part I, Production Company at the Lex, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Nov 10. www.theprodco.com. 800-838-3006.