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Theater Review

South Coast Rep's Garden Party

Five short plays on the Latino experience make for an enchanting 'California Scenarios' at Isamu Noguchi's Costa Mesa sculpture garden.

July 29, 2002|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Isamu Noguchi's sculpture garden in Costa Mesa was named "California Scenario," the title was a virtual invitation for a theater company to present a California-set play--or five--within the space, which evokes the varied textures of the California landscape.

With South Coast Repertory located only one block north of the garden, it's surprising that it took almost two decades for South Coast to produce there.

Last summer, "California Scenarios" opened in workshop form, presenting five short site-specific plays drawn from the California Latino experience, produced by South Coast's Hispanic Playwrights Project. Now the production has returned with four of last year's plays and a new fifth one.

It's an enchanting experience. The site envelops five sketchy texts and creates a sum greater than the parts.

Directed by Juliette Carrillo, the evening summons the spirits of early Californians in two scenes and juxtaposes them with the struggles of recent Latino immigrants, ending with a lighthearted glimpse under the slick surfaces of the immediate area.

The audience walks to five different locations within the garden, carrying folding chairs to each new site (ushers can help if necessary).

On opening night, wispy pink clouds reflected the final vestiges of daylight as the audience gathered in front of the garden's desert mound. It's used for Anne Garcia-Romero's ironic mini-farce, "Desert Longing, or Las Aventureras," set just outside early Los Angeles.

The dashing bandit Tiburcio Vasquez has arranged a nocturnal rendezvous with four women who have visited him in jail. None of the women knows about the others, but they're soon tripping over each other under the stars, waiting for Vasquez as if he were a more romantic precursor to Godot.

Next is Jose Cruz Gonzalez's "Odysseus Cruz," in which Homer's hero is transformed into a smuggler of men across the modern-day U.S.-Mexican border. Returning from one disastrous trip, he stops at an oasis and is assaulted by the souls of the men who have died. Vividly clad spirits make dramatic entrances and exits, and a singer narrates in Spanish and English. Although the scene is striking enough, the subject calls out for a full-length epic.

This summer's only new entry, Richard Coca's "The Hanging of Josefa," returns us to the 19th century, in Gold Rush country.

Against a fittingly wooded background and with a "based on actual events" advisory in the program, we see the story of a young woman who murdered a new settler after he had invaded her home and insulted her. Delivered in a presentational style with a mysterious red-clad narrator, the play is another example of material that doesn't quite fit the short-play format.

Joann Farias' "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back" takes us to an Orange County strawberry field, represented by a steeply graded hillside. One of the farm workers gazes across an expanse of rock and a little brook, as the audience looks on from two sides, and encounters apparitions from his life in Mexico. He yields to their call, in a beautifully wrought moment.

Finally, Luis Alfaro's "The Gardens of Aztlan (An Acto Hecho a Mano)" takes place in the very spot where we've gathered. First the men in the cast hold a spirited, attitude-spiked conversation about Orange County. Then one of the women emerges from the nearby El Torito, playing one of the restaurant's tortilleras, in search of the county's eponymous oranges.

Soon she's joined by the other women--identically dressed refugees from La Salsa, Del Taco and Taco Bell.

Alfaro uses the circular imagery of tortillas and oranges in a riff on the idea of returning full circle to what this area was like before the arrival of the buildings that look down on the garden.

The evening ends with hot tortillas from the real El Torito, served to the audience by the cast.

Javier Godinez provides unobtrusive musical strains, and Christopher Akerlind adds another extraordinary credit to his summer of lighting some of the region's most adventurous productions, including "King Lear" at the Brewery and "The House of Bernarda Alba" at the Mark Taper Forum.

"California Scenarios," Noguchi Sculpture Garden, 3202 Avenue of the Arts (behind the Comerica building at 611 Anton Blvd.), Costa Mesa. Tuesday-Sunday, 8 p.m. Ends Sunday. $15-$25. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Ensemble: Elisa Bocanegra, Jonathan del Arco, Javi Mulero, Karmin Murcelo, Maricela Ochoa, Geoffrey Rivas, Winston J. Rocha, Monica Sanchez.

"Desert Longing, or Las Aventureras," by Anne Garcia-Romero; "Odysseus Cruz," by Jose Cruz Gonzalez; "The Hanging of Josefa," by Richard Coca; "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back," by Joann Farias; "The Gardens of Aztlan [An Acto Hecho a Mano]," by Luis Alfaro. Directed by Juliette Carrillo. Production designer Christopher Acebo. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind. Composer/harpist Javier Godinez. Stage manager Richard Soto.

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