"Malinche," Victor Hugo Rascon Banda's heavily symbolic drama, presented by Grupo de Teatro Sinergia at the Unity Arts Center's Frida Kahlo Theater, attempts to draw a philosophical parallel between Cortes' conquest and the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico. But Rascon Banda doesn't stop there. Provocative if not always coherent, his surrealistic expose attacks a mind-boggling variety of social ills, from government corruption to industrial pollution to the shortcomings of NAFTA.
Rascon Banda employs an effective central mouthpiece in La Malinche, a young Indian slave girl who became Cortes' translator and mistress. Many consider the part Malinche played in Cortes' conquest traitorous. Others consider her a proto-feminist heroine who had a key role in her nation's development.
Rascon Banda is apparently on the side of Malinche's apologists, portraying her as a tortured victim of gender and circumstance. It's a point cogently made and well-taken--although the play is otherwise so far-flung and dense that it almost collapses under its symbolic weight.
Fortunately, director Ruben Amavizca keeps the pacing taut even when Rascon Banda's plot sags. More important, Amavizca helps lighten the load of Rascon Banda's didacticism with a snappy, often funny staging that shows off his energetic cast to maximum advantage.
The play is presented on alternate weekends in English or Spanish, so many of the roles have been double cast. Particularly noteworthy in the English production is Ricardo Rocha, who makes Cortes a sleazy nonpareil, a gold-chained smoothie right out of a singles' club nightmare. Also outstanding is Alex Montanez as the doomed Cuauhtemoc, a valiant Aztec leader who defies the invaders, nobly and tragically.
* "Malinche," Frida Kahlo Theater at the Unity Arts Center, 2332 W. 4th St., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 6 p.m. Spanish performances this weekend and March 8-11; English performances March 1-4. $12. (213) 382-8133. Running time: 2 hours.