[INTERVIEW] A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the LATC: Evelina Fernández Adapts Plautus

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interview by ED RAMPELL

Why did you write this updated version of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus’ The Pot of Gold?

EVELINA FERNÁNDEZ: The Latino Theater Company was approached by Ralph Flores [Project Specialist in Public Programs] at the Getty Villa. He asked us if we wanted to do something in the Getty Villa Theater Lab. We’d done a Lab production before, an adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. This time we were going for a comedy, and went through lots of different Roman comedies to figure out which one we could adapt, so we chose The Pot of Gold. We thought it was funny. [laughs]

Plautus wrote The Pot of Gold around 190 B.C. and it’s set in Rome (or Greece). When and where does your adaptation, La Olla, take place?

It takes place in the 1950s in East Los Angeles.

How does one take a classic and make it timely for a contemporary audience?

Well, greed is greed — the play is about greed, which is universal. In contemporary times, greed is playing a big role in the global economy, global politics. When you talk about the corporations and how they’re controlling the world and the economics of the world… The play resonates — even though we’re talking about a small nightclub, La Olla resonates when people talk about greed.

It’s not only monetary greed; Euclio [Sal Lopez] has another type of greed — a huge hunger for fame, as well as fortune.

Right. It’s also commentary about us, as artists, why we do the work that we do. So many times we’re seduced by the possibility of fame, of being a star, of making a name for yourself.

What challenges were there in adapting a more than 2,000 year old play?

If you read the original… and can you really call it an original? Because you’re really reading a translation [from Latin]. And there are so many different translations. And who knows, after all these centuries, if the translations are even understanding the essence of what Plautus was trying to say way back then? But I figure that if Plautus could take the Greeks and adapt them to his audience, I can certainly make an effort to adapt his play and make it relevant to our audience.

So the challenge is… I write for a specific audience hoping that it resonates with everybody. I write for a Latino audience; that’s my sensibility, that’s what I know. I’m happy and proud to do that. I don’t worry too much about appealing to any other audience, except for the Latino audience. But most of my themes in my work are universal, so many audiences enjoy my plays, although all of the characters are Latino. So it was challenging to figure out: how do I make this appeal to my audience?

How did you take this ancient Roman farce and make it relevant to today?

Basically, I read the story and figured out what its essence was and tried to stay close to the structure that Plautus used for his comedy. I originally went though the structure and tried to figure out how I was going to take it into the storyline into this nightclub…

How did you come up with the idea of setting La Olla in a nightclub? That’s not in the original.

The Latino Theater Company has been exploring the “noir” [film genre], since we did Solitude [in 2009]. Then we did A Mexican Trilogy and got away from it. Then when we did Premeditation we continued with our exploration of “noir” and came upon what you call, during the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, the “Rumberas films.” They were basically tragic stories about women and love. They used a lot of music and club acts. Usually, the center of the story was in a nightclub or the main character was a club singer or dancer. The Rumberas films also take from the “noir.”

Rumberas is derived from rumba?

Yes… [La Olla’s] dance numbers are rumbas. All of the rumbas are rooted in Afro-Cuban.

The costumes used by dancers during La Olla’s nightclub acts look like something one might have seen on Havana stages in pre-Castro Cuba.

[laughs] No, they’re not pre-Castro Cuba, but they could be ’50s East L.A. nightclubs… The costumes are designed specifically for the show.

You have one direct reference to ancient Rome in La Olla: a female dressed like a Roman centurion. Why?

She’s the assistant stage manager; she moves the set. It was a tip of my helmet to the Roman comedy that this was based on. We also used the original character names.

A change you made from the original is that in Plautus’ Pot of Gold, Lyconides [Sam Golzari] actually rapes Phaedria [Esperanza America]. But in La Olla the sex is consensual — if drunken.

Rape is hard. This is something we talked about with the staff over at the Getty Villa. Because they’re a great resource in terms of looking at the originals and figuring out what the intents were. You know, rape isn’t funny. Maybe it was funny back when Plautus wrote the play, but it’s not funny anymore.

Hopefully, 2,000 years later, we’re a bit more sensitive than the ancient Roman Empire’s audiences, with their gladiators fighting to the death and their vomitoriums?

[laughs] Yeah. Right. The way Plautus wrote about it was, like, you know, “He ravished her at the revel.” I guess that was acceptable back then; it’s not acceptable now. As a contemporary woman, I just couldn’t go there.

You’re in very good company in adapting Plautus: Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors was based on the Roman bard’s Menaechmi.

Oh! I didn’t know that.

And also, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is based on Plautus comedies.

I knew that.

You’re not only an award-winning playwright but also an accomplished actress. What’s it like for you to act with this ensemble in a play you wrote?

It’s just part of what I do. I write for our company — we’re going to be celebrating 30 years together. So I started out as an actor in the Latino Theater Company and then decided to start writing because I felt like I had something to say, and we have something to say, together, as an ensemble, as a company. It’s so much part of what I do that I don’t think about it too much… I’d much rather be on the stage than sit in the audience and feel their reactions to my writing. [laughs]

What’s your favorite updated version of a classic play re-set in modern times?

…[Revising Romeo and Juliet as] West Side Story is a great example — but I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite. I don’t like non-Latinos playing Latinos.

But Rita Moreno?

[laughs] That’s one! …We’re talking about the 1960s. Diversity was not even talked about back then, even though there were many Latinos cast in movies playing non-Latino roles, such as Anthony Quinn.

There’s a long tradition of Latinos such as Dolores del Rio, Maria Montez and Moreno, playing Polynesian parts onscreen.

Why didn’t they cast Polynesians?

Because to white studio executives, “If you’ve seen one Third Worlder, you’ve seen them all.”

[laughs] And you know what? Unfortunately, it hasn’t changed too much since then.

NOW PLAYING: LA OLLA by Evelina Fernandez, through April 24 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

laolla iconWhat would you do if you won the lotto? Buy a house? Help your relatives? What if you found a pot of gold? In La Olla, Leo, a bit player in a shady 1950s L.A. nightclub, finds a pot full of cash and is overtaken by greed and mistrust as he plans to use the money to become a “star.”

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/.