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Stage Light

One-Woman Show Bears Master's Mark

March 01, 2001|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Margaret Medina is one smart actor. Witness: She can slip in and out of characters faster than a DJ spinning discs. She can do a wide range of accents; she can be funny, charming or thoughtful when it's called for; and she made sure to work with Mark W. Travis when developing her new solo show, "Margarita on the Rocks," at the Creative Center in North Hollywood.

Travis, as every smart L.A. actor knows, is the reigning maestro of the autobiographical solo performance, developing with actors their personal stories into theater. A Travis landmark and an indication of the impact he can have on actors' careers was his collaboration with Chazz Palminteri on his star-making "A Bronx Tale."

The stamp of Travis' approach is all over "Margarita," and Medina takes to it with gusto. Although Michael McGee is credited here as director, it's impossible to spot what he brought to the mix aside from the modest but precise staging and lighting. Not so with Medina, who puts heart and soul into her tales of growing up Latina in the San Fernando Valley and of her growing consciousness about her Mexican heritage. Travis has clearly pushed Medina to dig deep.

The general thrust of "Margarita" is hardly new: Latino actors (Luis Alfaro and John Leguizamo, among many others) have long used the autobiographical solo format to bring their pasts back to life. Although they're often only in their early 30s, they already have plenty of material to work with. The dominant theme, which Medina gladly embraces, is the cultural tension of what it means to be Latino inside the American mainstream, juggling all the ways of the Anglo world with the complexities of, in Medina's case, the Mexican cosmos.

She neatly breaks up this theme into two sections. The first is a sweet memoir of being the total Val shop-till-you-drop-teen and dealing with being sent off to summer school in Guanajuato in central Mexico. Medina serves up her distinctive familia, especially her tough dad, and before we know it, we're riding in the bus with passengers carrying chickens.

Her storytelling is fluid and never emphatic, open to the sudden surprise as when her hyped-up teen self takes a pause and actually notices how beautiful the countryside is, or when she realizes that she's never felt more American. It's a beautiful memory, resonant, ideally preserved.

Via some amusing transitions (some employing the overused comedy motif of the cherished Mexican Catholic icon, Our Lady of Guadalupe), Medina shifts into a second section that begins with the Day of the Dead holiday. Never has this fantastic celebration been better or more sweetly explained to non-Mexican audience members. It ends with a dream in which she's haunted by the expectations to marry and her ticking biological clock. Again, the larger theme is hardly new, but the personal touches and quirks Medina brings make it feel like it's fresh out of the oven. This is where her work with Travis bears fine fruit, helping us to see that there is one more smart actor in town.

BE THERE

"Margarita on the Rocks," the Creative Center, 11223 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Saturdays at 8 p.m. Ends March 24. (818) 763-0323. Running time: 70 minutes.

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