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THEATER REVIEW : 'Texas Trinity' Captures Nuances of a Small Town

August 04, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Actor, raconteur, dancer and chatterbox extraordinaire, Paul Bonin-Rodriguez displays many talents in "The Texas Trinity," his anthology of three solo performance pieces about a repressed, isolated homosexual growing up in a small Texas town.

But he makes his deepest impression as a writer with a keen eye for the quirks and incidentals that evoke the fabric of life in a parochial, narrow-minded community.

His mythical Cedar Springs abounds with lively, eccentric personalities, not the least of which is his fictional alter ego, Johnny Hobson--an effeminate loner who spends his youth enduring the taunts of the local townsfolk, working at the local Dairy Queen and dreaming of a way out.

In less capable hands, the premise could easily become a recipe for the self-pity and elitism to which gay-themed performance art, saddled with the built-in hyper defensiveness of a reviled minority, can be particularly susceptible.

But Bonin-Rodriguez understands the difference between a stage and a soapbox, serving as narrator rather than commentator and allowing his perceptions and insights into homophobia, religious dogma, sexuality, friendship and racial intolerance to emerge organically from his often hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking stories.

His protagonist Johnny is an appealing combination of sensitivity, intelligence and goofy naivete, and Bonin-Rodriguez isn't afraid to let him make a fool of himself.

Johnny cluelessly wrestles with the implications of his sexual orientation throughout much of the first piece, "Talk of the Town." The narrative pivots on a fifth-grade incident in which his compassion for a troubled friend leads to a playground embrace, making him the butt of malicious gossip. In a fierce confrontation with his mother, the accusation that her boyfriend pastor called things off because "he didn't want you for a son" provokes a defining moment of self-assertion for Johnny.

Traveling further down that road toward accepting his own nature in Part II, "Bible Belt," Johnny joins forces with two fellow social outcasts--his rowdy Chicana high school classmate and their feisty home economics teacher. The two main stories about Johnny's discovery of his hidden talents as a designer and the increasingly bullying tactics of a religious fundamentalist group converge marvelously in Johnny's unique act of defiance, arriving at school wearing the combined political and fashion statement that gives the segment its title.

In Part III, "Love in the Time of College," Johnny leaves Cedar Springs for the sprawling university in Austin. His country-mouse-in-the-city odyssey takes some disturbing turns before he links up with a community of other gays and finds true love. This sequence is the most tightly focused on the homosexual experience.

Throughout "The Texas Trilogy," Bonin-Rodriguez struggles with the insularity of his gay-themed focus, at his best broadening the playing field to embrace a universal support for the courage to stand up for one's identity despite enormous social pressure.

Most effective are the reflective passages of extraordinary poetic clarity that weave the disparate fragments of episodic details into a summing-up of life processes. In this regard, Part III is the least successful, perhaps because the author hasn't yet found the distance to present that stage of life in a context. Part II, on the other hand, is the best written and also has the broadest appeal.

For all its accomplishments, the breadth and depth of the entire opus doesn't measure up to its six-hour length. Audiences get much of the same experience from each installment, and, after sitting through all three, Highways starts to seem a lot like Traffic School.

* "The Texas Trinity," Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Part I: tonight at 8:30; Part II: tomorrow, 8:30 p.m.; Part III: Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; Parts I-III: Sunday at 5, 7, and 9 p.m. Ends Sunday. $10. (213) 660-8587. Running time: Each part is about 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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