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THEATER REVIEW : A Bigger 'L.A. Real' Changes Its Tone

April 03, 1993|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC EMERITUS

The first official presentation of the five-character version of Theresa Chavez's "L.A. Real" has arrived at Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts. Another incarnation was seen last August at UCLA as an impressively self-affirming one-woman show. The burning question now: Is bigger better?

No. But not so fast. The question deserves a complicated answer.

The show, presented by About Productions in association with the Armory, is bigger, yes, but not too much bigger. Five characters instead of one serve to expand discussion. It is a historical look at culture and discrimination through the eyes of a Mestiza whose ranching family helped found El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles 200-plus years ago, and it draws its chief merits--or did--from being such a personal account.

Where the Mestiza (played then and now by the proudly assertive Rose Portillo) once carried the load, she has to share it in this version with a pair of forefathers (Marco Rodriguez and Patrick Miller), a Gabrielino Indian (Sal Lopez) and a slippery white-bread real estate agent (Craig Cavanah).

The problem lies in the discourse they expand. One of the great strengths of the one-person "L.A. Real" was its pungent sense of heritage and subjectively intense historical indignation. The Mestiza told us about early Southern California from the perspective of her own family, the Lugos-- pobladores who settled in the region in 1771, beneficiaries of a land grant bestowed as a reward for valor on an ancestor. Their cattle grazed on 29,000 acres of what are now Bell, Lynwood and Montebello.

These facts flowed vigorously from the lips of a woman who, seven generations later, is questioning--as do so many Americans--who she is or should be: "An American mongrel? A Mexicana? Mexican-American? Chicana? Hispanic? Latina? Mestiza? . . . "

First clue as to what is different in this "L.A. Real": The question had been asked in the solo show with a deep sense of irony. It is delivered in this version, with more of a mocking arrogance. A subtle change, but not a useful one, because it triggers the wrong response. Where in the solo version one embraced the Mestiza's quandary, this character inspires diffidence.

Why the shift? There was much to love and respect in the pride and pragmatism of that Mestiza we met last August--and much to learn from her. She did not take herself too seriously, but she knew the history and took the issues seriously. She was passionate . This one is angry and, as a result, contemptuous and self-important--subtle but significant gradations. The first Mestiza was more persuasive.

Second clue: A lot of the writing here (some of it apparently from the pen of historical consultant Norman Klein) is much more academic and dry. The trenchant and spirited whirl of the one-person "L.A. Real" kept us in thrall, delivering facts cogently wrapped in vivid and poetic imagery. These saliently bob in and out of the expanded text, like white caps in a sea of lesser writing.

This material is far more didactic, particularly the pallid exchanges between the ranchero Vicente Lugo (Rodriquez) and Hugo Reid (Miller), while the words of Gabrielino Indian Joe (the news vendor who speaks for the disenfranchised Indios ), and of the fast-talking real estate salesman (the embodiment of those who advocate the paving over of every inch of California soil) feel like pronouncements chiefly designed to be politically correct. Efforts to make the blooping agent funny come off as just efforts.

Either Chavez (who conceived, wrote, produced and directed this show) involved too many people in the expanded version process or listened to too much advice.

Whatever the causes, this "L.A. Real" feels put together by committee. The role of the Mestiza has gone limp, and the once defiant, intelligent ring of her voice is shrill. It settles for a certain platitudinous loftiness and unneeded disdain.

As director, Chavez has not found the pulse of the piece and should consider cutting it to 90 mintes, starting with the intermission that only interrupts an already erratic flow. Sets, lights and costumes by Tulsa Kinney, Liz Stillwell and Jayni Borgaro, respectively, serve their purpose, while music by Luis Perez Ixoneztli does better than that.

Casting, on the other hand, is only moderately successful. Rodriguez has a few singular moments as Vicente Lugo, but his scenes with Miller lack pacing, and both Lopez and Cavanah fight a losing battle with the forced jokiness and artificiality of their dialogue.

Portillo is too vibrant an actress to lose all of her luster in her altered state, but her character is spread too thin and too dour to have the bracing impact it once had.

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