Play it again, Pancho.
In "Pancho Villa and the Naked Lady," at Los Angeles Theatre Center's downstairs Theatre 3, the famous bandit/revolutionary is like Humphrey Bogart in Woody Allen's "Play It Again, Sam"--a fantasy figure from the past who materializes in order to give advice to a modern man about his relationships with women.
Villa's advice stinks. He is depicted as--quite literally--a lady-killer, and contemporary women don't have to put up with his \o7 machismo. \f7 Mexican playwright Sabina Berman implants this mildly feminist statement inside her comedy, now in its U.S. premiere in an English translation by Ruben Garfias, produced by Bilingual Foundation of the Arts.
It looks as if Berman's strategy went something like this: Lure the male chauvinists into the theater with a titillating title (in fact, the lady in question is naked emotionally, not physically), make them laugh, then sneak in a little lesson.
That lesson seems awfully little in 1994 Los Angeles, where this production has been set. Not many of the people who go see this production would ever consider looking to the likes of Pancho Villa for advice about women.
Some of the performances in Margarita Galban's staging are almost as obvious as the lesson--gestures and jokes are underlined and overstated. All that mugging produces fewer laughs, not more.
The play is stuck with a somewhat odd structure. At the beginning, Gina (Margarita Stocker)--a successful \o7 chorizo \f7 entrepreneur--is the central character more than her sometime suitor Adrian (Garfias), a professor whose specialty just happens to be Pancho Villa. By the end, however, Adrian has taken over the play so much that Gina isn't even in the last scene.
The heart of the play is the tug of war between the two of them, with Gina demanding a commitment and Adrian resisting, guided in his strategy by the spirit of Villa (Ciro Suarez). Adrian behaves abominably. At one point Gina herself imagines a scene with Adrian's mentor Villa--but only so that Villa's mother (Vetza Trussell) gets the chance to berate him.
Finally, in Act Two, Gina finds a younger man (Javi Mulero) and dismisses Adrian for good. Adrian still wants her, but when he pursues her he's intercepted by Gina's friend and partner Andrea (Alejandra Flores), the granddaughter of one of Villa's adversaries. The last scene of the play is the foiled seduction of Adrian by Andrea, with Gina presumably off somewhere enjoying her new life.
While every character gets more or less what's coming, the absence of Gina at the end is felt. Adrian's reprehensible qualities are too exaggerated for the audience to care much what happens to him.
Garfias' performance begins to endow Adrian with a measure of breezy charm, but that little breeze is eventually blown away by the gusts of his toxic behavior. And Stocker is so intent on establishing the stress of Gina's affairs that she neglects to show us why Adrian would ever get involved with her.
Performances of "Entre Villa y una Mujer Desnuda" in Spanish alternate with those in English.
\o7 * "Pancho Villa and the Naked Lady," Los Angeles Theatre Center Theatre 3, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends June 12. $15-$18. (213) 225-4044. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
\f7 A Bilingual Foundation of the Arts production. By Sabina Berman. Directed by Margarita Galban. English translation by Ruben Garfias. Set and sound by Estela Scarlata. Lighting by Robert Fromer. Costumes by Corky Dominguez.