The Los Angeles Theatre Center has hit its stride. Any house that can open three productions as sharp as "Etta Jenks," "The House of Correction" and, now, "The Promise" within the space of a month is performing like a world-class theater.
"The Promise" joined LATC's ninth annual festival on Friday night. Its author is a young writer named Jose Rivera, born in Puerto Rico but raised on the mainland.
His play will remind you a little of "The Dybbuk" and a little of "The Tempest," and it will also strike you as wholly original. The Virgin Mary is in it, plus several ghosts, but the setting is as real as a backyard in Patchoag, Long Island. Sometimes it's a comedy, but sometimes it's a tragedy. Maybe it's a dream. On second thought, no. Something happened in Guzman's backyard. A more rational explanation would leave too much out.
Guzman (Shawn Elliot) and his cronies left Puerto Rico years ago, but they never left it in their heads. Hence the lighted statue of the Blessed Mother in the backyard and the killer chicken under the porch. Guzman has made a lot of money with that chicken.
The chicken is played by Maruca Medina, not cutely. This play believes--because its characters do--in spirits. This does not make it a gloomy play. Quite the reverse. The world becomes very interesting when a chicken can be the devil's sister, or when a bride can speak with the voice of the youth she should have married.
The bride here (Lucy Rodriguez) is Guzman's daughter--Miranda to his Prospero. She wanted to marry the wrong boy (Ray Oriel). Guzman fixed him with his black magic. But when the dead are young and healthy, they don't stay dead.
Moreover, a vow has been broken here, the "promise" of the title. The dead boy was the son of Guzman's used-to-be best friend (Julio Medina). Their children were to have united their families. Now what?
Without tipping the plot, it can be said that Guzman ends up getting what he deserves, or perhaps a little more than he deserves. But his daughter gets less than she deserves--for which Papa will pay. As for the chicken coop and the Virgin's shrine, here come the bulldozers.
But some things can't be plowed under. Playwright Rivera doesn't endorse Guzman's brand of magic--a sleazy blend of voodoo, bleeding-heart Catholicism and psychology, abetted by pills. But he suggests that a life without magic would be death.
Magic means a respect for things unseen, for whatever it is that makes the corn grow. If it's wrong to use these forces in order to settle a blood feud, as Guzman tries to do, he at least acknowledges that they exist. That's better than destroying the earth out of sheer ignorance, like the crew next door.
The contrast might seem too schematic on paper. Not so at LATC, where the bulldozer on the other side of the fence is as mythic a figure as the killer chicken--not that we ever see it. With sound designer Jon Gottlieb at the controls, who needs to?
(Gottlieb and composer Francisco Gonzales also supply a terrific stream of get-up-and-dance music: salsa and then some. Think "Zoot Suit." But "Zoot Suit" now. )
Jose Luis Valenzuela steers his actors to some very sure characterizations. Shawn Elliot's Guzman is a thoroughly bad lot, but not without charm: a rascal who keeps his youth by forgiving himself anything. Lucy Rodriguez's daughter begins, like Shakespeare's Miranda, in a state of blooming innocence and ends as an incipient virago.
Ray Oriel plays both the handsome youth she should marry and the rich nerd of her father's choice. Oriel's best in role A, especially after discovering that heaven is an all-day movie house where people watch what's happening down on earth. How can he settle for that?
The viewer is both amused and able to see that this could present a ghost a real problem. Neither the script nor the cast has the slightest problem veering into the hypothetical, from the real to the hypothetical, from the most real of them (Diane Rodriguez, a hard-boiled character from down the block) to the most whimsical (Nestor Serrano, whose dybbuk seems to be John Wayne).
Similarly, we have no trouble accommodating the fake-brick siding on Guzman's house (pure Patchoag) and its comic-strip window panes (pure fantasy). Set designer Rosario Provenza also knows how to live in two worlds.
Tina Cantu Navarro's costumes also are real and not-real. An example is the daughter's wedding dress, with its overtones of a winding sheet. In the dark such a dress can seem to be moving by itself, and lighting designer Robert Wierzel supplies some marvelous darks.
Problems? Using puppets instead of live actors in the wedding scene doesn't work very well, and through Act II there's a section where things bog down. But the play soon finds its footing, and the curtain resolves all questions . . . without taking the mystery out of them. What fun would that be?
Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. 514 S. Spring St. Tickets $21-$25. (213) 627-5599.
'THE PROMISE' Jose Rivera's play, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Director Jose Luis Valenzuela. Producer Diane White. Sets Rosario Provenza. Lighting Robert Wierzel. Costumes Tina Cantu Navarro. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Masks and puppets Cat Dragon. Original music Francisco Gonzales. Stage manager Jill Johnson. With Shawn Elliott, Julio Medina, Maruca Medina, Lucy Rodriguez, Diane Rodriguez, Nestor Serrano, Ray Oriel, Julio Medina. Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. 514 S. Spring St. Tickets $21-$25. (213) 627-5599.