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THEATER REVIEW : A Dramatic Symbol Lacking Power : 'Last Angry Brown Hat' creates the right atmosphere but lacks the necessary emotion.

August 19, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes frequently about theater for The Times

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Like a totem laden with mystic associations, Willie's brown beret is stored away in a garage chest. And, as if he were opening an ancient Aztec crypt, Willie opens the chest and pulls out the brown beret when his pals come by after their friend Frankie's funeral. Here is the symbol of the Brown Berets, the militant group Willie and friends led during the heyday of the late 1960s-early '70s "Chicano Power" movement.

Here, too, is the source of the title of Alfredo Ramos' play, "The Last Angry Brown Hat," the first produced by Actors Alley's Aztlan Playwrights Collective at Actors Alley's tented space on the grounds of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

In Rose Portillo's staging, though, Willie's beret doesn't contain theatrical power. Even though Ramos wrote his drama as an extremely traditional, naturalistic vehicle for memories recalled and emotions purged--the kind of play they used to write when The Method ruled the roost--he seems to want some kind of magic to pulsate from the beret on stage. It's a concise, potentially powerful symbol of everything these guys dreamed about and lost.

Alas, the symbol just sits there. Instead, the power must come from Portillo's actors, a kind of Who's Who of L.A. Chicano theater artists: Enrique Castillo as welding shop owner Willie, Danny De La Paz as math teacher Louie, Mike Gomez as TV writer Jojo and Del Zamora as chronically unemployed Rude Boy. Three are reviving their roles from "Brown Hat's" first staging in April, 1993, in Lincoln Heights (Castillo is the newcomer).

So, these are actors very comfortable with their roles, and very aware of the cultural dichotomy that animates the play: '60s youthful anger/radicalism and '90s adult responsibility/conformism.

Much is made here, for instance, of Jojo's "sell-out" job as a writer in a TV industry that can't produce one prime-time Latino show. Ramos, a TV writer, is writing close to home. We're hearing the message, ironically, just yards away from the TV industry's own academy.

Unfortunately for the play, this remains a message and nothing more. "Brown Hat" wanders around from topic to topic; you can feel Ramos searching for dramatic pay-offs, but he's never quite sure how to build up to them. He tries to build something out of Willie's cracked notion that one of them snitched to the cops, who then went after the Brown Berets with a vengeance.

That doesn't really go anywhere, so Ramos gives each guy an emotional monologue. Here, we finally get to the essence of these men, but the one-speech-after-another format is wearying. The play doesn't work, but the atmosphere surrounding it works in a big way. Zamora's comic zest produced enough laughter Sunday to drown out a plane overhead. If only Ramos' drama spoke as loudly.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "The Last Angry Brown Hat."

Location: Actors Alley at the Television Academy, 5220 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Sept. 4.

Price: $7.

Call: (818) 508-4200.

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