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'Latinologues' reduces indignities to laughter

THEATER BEAT

May 30, 2003|Daryl H. Miller, David C. Nichols, Philip Brandes

Let's apply Newton's third law to emotions for a moment. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So despair propels us toward hope, frustration toward accomplishment, tears toward laughter.

Comedy often works on this principle, turning something that ordinarily would prick our anger into something that tickles the ribs. Examples of this can be seen in "Latinologues," in which writer-director Rick Najera takes some of the sting out of illegal immigration, menial labor and prejudice by getting people to laugh at them. His ever-expanding repertoire of monologues and sketches keeps turning up in Southern California, this time in the small Studio space at the Coronet Theatre.

A highlight of this edition is Najera's portrayal of an effusive movie executive whose hilariously awful ideas for the Latino market include "My Big Fat Mexican Quinceanera" and " 'Titanico' -- Cubans on a raft with a slow leak."

More poignant is the tale of a hyper-macho busboy (Fernando Carrillo) whose ego gets bruised by the blond of his American dreams, and the story of a pregnant young woman of Dominican descent (Monica Ortiz) who calls herself "the virgin of the Bronx" and insists the guy who impregnated her must be an angel "because he just vanished."

The most powerful monologue focuses on an earnest, affable janitor (Joseph Perez Bertot) who takes great pride in his work and thinks he's found a perfect life working in New York high-rise office buildings until a certain day in September 2001.

As with any comedy show, this one lapses at times. Signs of desperation emerge when Najera must duplicate a gag -- a second banana mindlessly echoing the words of his superior -- to try to pump up sketches about a drug lord (Carrillo) and a Chicano student group (with Paul Saucido).

Still, the hip, young audience at a recent performance kept the room filled with laughter.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"Latinologues," Coronet Studio Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., L.A. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 30. Cast and monologues may vary. $20. (310) 657-7377. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

*

Strong testimonial to sibling devotion

Rare vitality and soul-searching honesty accompany "Batman & Robin in the Boogie Down" at the Elephant Theatre in Hollywood. Writer-performer Juliette Jeffers' solo elegy to her late brother and the Caped Crusader fantasies of their traumatic Bronx childhood is an effective showcase for a remarkable talent.

The Caribbean American Jeffers, familiar from such TV series as "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," displays imposing range. From initial appearance dragging a metaphoric suitcase to final tableau with same, Jeffers has a death grip on both her craft and her audience.

Act 1 offers Jeffers' recollections of how television's Gotham City offered escape from sexual abuse and neighborhood violence for her and elder brother Lloyd. Act 2 brings Lloyd's chronicle of the same events, as Jeffers channels his viewpoint to achieve communion and closure.

Under Reggie Rock Bythewood's strong direction, the designs are adroit, with Kirk Herzbrun and Terilyn A. Shropshire's atmospheric soundscape especially helpful.

This is a deeply personal labor of love, essentially beyond criticism. However, if Jeffers' synoptic trajectory is knowingly drawn, it doesn't always sustain its structure. There are unnecessary digressions, over-explicated passages, and Jonas Chaka's tickling human beat-box is underused.

Yet, although "Batman & Robin" might have greater festival viability if refined to one searing double-edged act, Jeffers' gifts are undeniable, and easily recommend this funny, touching testimonial to the power of sibling devotion.

-- David C. Nichols

"Batman & Robin in the Boogie Down," Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursday-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Saturday. $20. (323) 769-6242. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

*

Music lifts story of aspiring singer

A funny thing happened to "Black Olive" on the way to its inaugural production at Stage 52. Originally workshopped as an R&B musical set to the music of the late Marvin Gaye, writer-director Mark Swinton's morality tale about the tribulations of an aspiring singer in 1960s Harlem hit a major snag when Gaye's estate denied performance rights to the songs. That setback proved the best thing that could have happened to Swinton, who turned to hip-hop musicians Professor Taka, K.B. and Tarik to craft original music and lyrics in the style of Motown hits.

The songwriting team came through with a score that skillfully conjures up the era's soul-stirring R&B explosion, including affectionate stylistic nods to Gaye, the Supremes, Ike and Tina Turner and other Motown figures.

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