By Pat Launer
Fantasy and history, narrative and song,
In “ Corridos Remix,’ Luis sings along
‘ Alice ’ at the Looking Glass, gamely stepping through,
Falls into a rabbit hole at SDSU.
The drama’s both onstage and off. “ Corridos REMIX” parallels and summarizes the life and work of Luis Valdez – his fascination with the history of the Americas , preserving the past, looking to the future, teaching about our ‘continental heritage’ and passing on his life’s legacy. With his middle son, Kinan , Valdez co-wrote the world premiere revision of his original “ Corridos ,” which made a brief visit to the Globe and won a Peabody Award when it aired on PBS in 1987. Now Luis, who always thinks of his work (from the fields of Delano to the present) as teaching as well as inspiring, plays El Maestro, the teacher/master, a stuffy academic, ethnomusicologist who’s collected a literal trunkload of international corridos , dramatic narratives typically told in song, dance, action and frequently, comedy.
It’s like déjà vu to see Luis standing up on that trunk expostulating, just as he stood on the flatbed trucks in his César Chavez days, teaching and preaching, instructing and inspiring, referring to his “40 years of memories of the New World .” Luis rides again! He bestrides “this treasure-chest of my life’s work, a living tradition,” wondering if he’ll find “the natural heir.” This was a concern in last year’s “Earthquake Sun” as well – passing the torch, sharing the riches, naming a successor.
Valdez has three sons, all of whom are in the ‘family business,’ El Teatro Campesino , which he founded in 1965. He’s far from finished, and seems to have plenty of piss, vinegar and plays in him. But probably ever since a serious illness a few years back, legacy is very much on his mind. Kinan seems a likely heir. He looks and sounds like Luis, has his fire and talent – for directing, writing and acting. And his contributions to this script are obvious; he adds his 21st century sensibility to the mix. Valdez Senior, very much a child of the ‘60s, probably put the Beatles and Woody Guthrie in there; Kinan almost certainly contributed Alicia Keys, Rage Against the Machine and the narcocorridos , the current, controversial, political, dark-and-dirty drug-running border narratives.
The focus of this show-full of multicultural, multilingual corridos (projected translations provided) is, as we’re told in the more didactic moments of the play, “the universality of immigrant labor,” the “survival instinct of the wretched,” “the blood of different mundos .” The narrative thread is weak, but it serves to weave these disparate story-songs together.
El Maestro is trying to pass his collection, and his heritage, to his newfound and reluctant granddaughter, a hip, “transnational troubadour” who’s more interested in the future than the past. But they’re connected by the pain of abandonment, and their search for the long-lost junkie punk-rocker, Eddie Gallo – her father, his son. They begin to bond musically, retelling historical tales from Asia, Africa and Latin America , in the process, co-creating ‘a new American consciousness.’ Some of these songs are more apt and more powerful than others. Standouts include the sad tale of “Modesto Ayala,” the upper class, sickly Mexican girl with the lower class criollo ( creole ) lover; “El Corrido de Juan Enrico ,” or John Henry, beautifully enacted with a potent central performance by Robert Barry Fleming. “The Appeal of John Chinaman,” an immigrant story set during the California gold rush, was most notable for the performance (and appearance!) of Luis as a queue-wearing Asian. The second act opener, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia ,” is especially energizing, with the multi-talented Yvette Gonzalez- Nacer on fiddle. The narcocorridos , “ Contrabando y Traicion ” (Contraband and Betrayal) and “La Banda de Carro Rojo ” (The Red Car Gang), are dark and powerful, with particularly strong staging. Kinan Valdez proves himself to be an exceptional director, with attention to detail, visual imagery and mining every piece for its soul and heart. The production is also well served by the inventive choreography of Javier Velasco.
The chameleon cast is terrific, each playing multiple roles with grace and style. The principals are compelling and well-cast: the strapping and appealing Fleming, Valdez veteran Raul Cardona, Fernando Vega (best at comic characters, especially the wild and wacky Eddie Gallo – a kind of punk John Belushi ) and sassy Alysa Lobo. They’re supported by an engaging ensemble: Lena Coleman, Markuz Rodriguez, Sandra Ruiz and Amir Khastoo (recently charming in the La Jolla Playhouse POP Tour production). But most of the attention is riveted on the calmly charismatic Valdez and the knockout Gonzalez- Nacer , a beautiful, sexy, gifted quadruple-threat (actor-singer-dancer-musician) who is a genuine ‘find’ and undoubtedly a rising star.
The set, costume and projection design (Victoria Petrovich ) are imaginative and well integrated, and extremely well lit (Jennifer Setlow ). There is so much to relish here; maybe the MuLan segment is too long and seems out of place. Maybe the exposition is a bit clunky at times, and breaking the fourth wall doesn’t always work. But this is one irresistible show. ‘Keep the memories alive,’ Luis says, as if he’s talking directly to his sons. ‘Carry the torch. Make your mark.’ Clearly, the message has gotten through. Viva Valdez !
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, thru May 22.
FALLING DOWN A RABBIT HOLE
One can never get enough of “ Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.” The Lewis Carroll classics are brilliant. It was a mammoth enterprise for SDSU professor Margaret Larlham to undertake a new adaptation, combining the primary text with action, dance and original music.
There was, you know, a real Alice . Alice Pleasance Liddell was the object and subject of Charles Dodgson’s late 19th century stories. Although they were written for and directed to children, the tales told by the mathematician and fantasist known as Lewis Carroll included very adult humor and considerable satire and commentary on the oddities and constraints of Victorian England.
Larlham , who’s the resident playwright for the Youth Theatre Touring Program at SDSU, intentionally bypassed the dark undertones. She focused on highlights and high spirits. Many aspects of the production were ingenious. The overarching theme seemed to be “Life, what is it but a dream?” The fantastical elements were consistently underscored, in often inventive ways: stretched elastic bands for multiple doorways, and three Alices , large and small, live and puppet. Some of the original illustrations were projected on the set (designed by Torrey Hyman). But there was a lack of depth and no discernible point of view; this left the viewer wondering if there was any intention other than to simply expose the child-observer to as much of the books’ content as possible in one evening.
The first act was a breathless whirlwind that skimmed along the surface of every story and short-changed the most delightful characters; the White Rabbit, Caterpillar, Dormouse, Mad Hatter and March Hare were all under-developed. The second act had a far more palatable pace and more effective humor. The most amusing of the creations were Tweedledee and Tweedledum , who also had the best costumes (the Lobster costumes were good, too; remember the Lobster Quadrille?). The Gryphon, Mock Turtle, Jabberwock and chess-pieces, not to mention Humpty Dumpty , were also cleverly attired. But the base costume for the entire ensemble (designs by Leslie Anne Malitz and Stephanie Parker), upon which all others were built, was an unattractive and unflattering pajama-like affair that made no statement and at times even interfered with the apparent objectives. Some costumes simply made no sense (a feather headpiece on the Rasta-man Cheshire Cat ??). As noted, Tweedledee -and Dum were wonderfully whimsical, and well enacted (Dan Morrison and Theresa Lenz). The songs and choreography were energetically performed, albeit uninspired. The 17-member cast worked hard, and the overall effort was impressive, if not always effective. The college-age audience obviously enjoyed the production; but for many, it seemed to be their first exposure to the masterwork. The more one knew of Carroll’s books, the less satisfying the show. It felt long for children and lacked subtlety for adults. But the attempt is to be commended.
As “ Corridos Remix” continues at the San Diego Rep, the documentary, “The Legacy of Luis Valdez, Father of Chicano Theater,” will continue to air on City TV. It’s a short, 25-minute documentary I wrote and co-produced with City TV. Seeing Luis onstage may pique your interest; find out what makes him a legend, meet his wife and sons, hear why he keeps coming back to San Diego, and what working with him meant to Edward James Olmos .
If you live within the City of San Diego , you can view the documentary this weekend on City TV, Cable Channel 24 (Cox or Time Warner), at 7pm on Friday, Saturday or Sunday (May 6, 7, 8). If you don’t live within the City limits, the show streams live at sandiego.gov/citytv . The documentary airs on KPBS-TV (channel 15, cable 11) this Sunday, May 8 at 12:30am (strictly for nightowls !) and again on Sunday, May 20 at 10:30pm. Set your TiVo now!
TALENT SCOUT OF THE TIMES
… When I was growing up in New York , Mel Gussow ’s opinion was quite influential. As longtime critic and cultural reporter for The New York Times, he trolled Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway for the creative voices of the moment — and the future. He championed the work of playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee (about whom he wrote a juicy, objective/subjective biography, “Edward Albee: A Singular Journey,” published in 1999). Over his 35-year tenure at the Times, he wrote more than 4000 reviews and articles. He loved to spotlight new talent, and was one of the first to take note of Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep . He heralded the off-the-beaten-track work of playwrights Athol Fugard and Mac Wellman; directors Robert Wilson, Charles Ludlam and Richard Foreman; performers like Spalding Gray and Whoopi Goldberg; and actors Bill Irwin and the subject of his most recent (2004) bio, “Michael Gambon : A Life in Acting.” He wrote acclaimed “Conversations With…” books on Arthur Miller and Samuel Beckett, as well as Pinter and Stoppard.
He died of cancer on May Day, at age 71. His voice and perspective will be missed. The New York Times obituary said “as a critic, he tended to view his role as advisory rather than adversarial.” That really spoke to me.
STEP INTO THE LOBBY
The Old Globe is holding an Insights Seminar for the upcoming production of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero,” directed by the returning mom-to-be, Kirsten Brandt. On Monday, May 23 at 7:00pm in the Old Globe Theatre, participants can go behind-the-scenes, and meet artists from all phases of the production. Free to Globe members and subscribers, $5 for the general public.
THE PLAY’S THE THING
If you haven’t yet bought – or seen – Ken Jacques’ beautiful theater book, ‘The Play’s the Thing: A Photographic Odyssey through Theatre in San Diego ,” now’s your chance. Ken and I (I wrote the book’s Foreword) will be talking, signing books and greeting the folks, at Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Encinitas, Saturday, May 14, 12-5pm. Stroll down a pictorial memory lane that spotlights 20 years of San Diego theater productions, with comments from many of San Diego ’s local luminaries. The co-sponsor of the event is North Coast Repertory Theatre; a portion of any money spent from 12-5 will benefit NCRT’s education and outreach programs. Download vouchers at northcoastrep.org.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“ Corridos REMIX” – Luis Valdez is back onstage after a decades-long hiatus. That alone is worth the trip. But so’s this irresistible, hand- clappin ’, foot- stompin ’ cross-cultural celebration of the Americas , as told in narrative song.
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through May 22.
“Antigone” – powerful translation and direction, and some outstanding performances, in this 2500 year-old tragedy that still feels fresh today.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, Thursday Friday & Saturday nights and Sunday matinee, through May 8.
“Vincent in Brixton” – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; magnificent performances, outstanding direction (by Rick Seer).
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through May 8.
“Woman from the Other Side of the World” – culture-crossing, supernatural play; captivating production.
At the Playhouse on Plaza in National City , through May 7.
“Metamorphoses” – lovely re-creation of Mary Zimmerman brilliant creation (pool and all!), extremely well designed, dressed and directed.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, EXTENDED through May 22.
“Raisin’ the Rent” – hand- clappin ’, foot- stompin ’, heartbreakin ’ jazz and blues, sung in cabaret style by six killer performers. At Caesar’s Café downtown, through May 22.
“Pageant” – where the girls are guys and the competition is ferocious. Loads of smarm and charm, and a lot of laughs.
At Cygnet Theatre, extended through May 22.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing.
Celebrate Cinco de Mayo – at the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.