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An epic tale of Dodgers shows it's not just a game

October 02, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Dodgers fans may think their team provided more than enough drama this weekend clinching a berth in the postseason, but that's nothing compared with the upheaval wrought almost half a century ago when Brooklyn's beloved major league ballclub shipped out to you-know-where.

In Heather Woodbury's breathtakingly expansive "Tale of 2Cities: An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks," which had its world premiere Saturday at the Freud Playhouse as part of UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival, the Dodgers' defection to the West Coast offers an ideal backdrop to explore the forces that both fracture and bind American society.

On the East Coast, the loss of the franchise deprived a borough of a unifying underdog symbol. White flight to the suburbs gained momentum, and Ebbets Field eventually became a public housing project. Meanwhile in L.A., the Dodgers' entry to Elysian Park marked the final erasure of the vibrant if ramshackle Mexican American barrios that had occupied the Chavez Ravine until they were leveled to make way for anonymous housing as part of a plan for "urban renewal."

That's a lot of history to cover, and Woodbury doesn't stop there. Moving freely between past and present, she draws parallels between the aftermath of the Dodgers' move and the way Sept. 11 traumatically revived our longing for communal connection.

As spectacularly ambitious as it is unapologetically meandering, the five-hour epic is presented in two installments. The treatment is kaleidoscopic rather than linear, but Part 1 ("Grifters, Drifters & Dodgers") focuses more on the early saga, while Part 2 ("Mega Mixicana Waltz") concentrates on the period immediately preceding and following the terrorist attacks.

What links the halves of Woodbury's story is the marvelous character of Aunt Miriam (played by Woodbury), a Brooklyn-born, secular Jewish lefty who heads out to Los Angeles in the '40s with her screenwriter husband, becomes a teacher and activist in the La Loma section of Chavez Ravine and returns to New York alone after discovering the man she married is homosexual.

Back in Greenwich Village, she falls in love again and resettles in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The old neighborhood has changed, but Miriam finds much of the same immigrant charm, learning to love a Morir Sonando, a Dominican drink, the way she once did an egg cream.

Still living in her community as a widow in her 80s, she is savagely beaten by a group of young girls from the Ebbets Housing Project, an incident that threatens to become a media-fueled racial flashpoint. The irony, of course, is that her life exemplifies the possibility of bridging the divides that needlessly keep neighbors apart. But her tragedy will be overtaken by another that will have New Yorkers posting fliers of missing loved ones and clinging to one another briefly for support.

None of the other narrative strands, vivid though they may be, are related with the same heartfelt detail. But they nonetheless become part of an impressive tapestry that reveals the country as something more than a platform for the pursuit of the American dream. Woodbury understands that not only don't we live in a vacuum but that our deepest ache is to be a part of something larger than our dislocated selves.

Gabriela (Diane Rodriguez), one of Miriam's students from La Loma, literally haunts the West Coast chapters of "Tale." She has recently passed on, but while waiting for her body to be discovered by her grandson Manny (Michael Ray Escamilla), a deejay who finds expression for his deracinated angst and alienation in music, Gabriela jumps back and forth in time to review the origins of her struggles.

The large and not always easily identifiable cast of characters, performed by a fiercely committed ensemble of seven, includes a Brooklyn cabbie who can't get over the Dodgers' betrayal (Leo Marks), a Starbucks-loving Hasidic rabbi (Ed Vassallo), a talk show radio host (Winsome Brown), and a disturbed, incessantly murmuring adolescent (Tracey A. Leigh), along with countless others who appear and disappear like fellow commuters on a subway.

It's not your ordinary theatrical entertainment that attempts to synthesize the histories of places and people with the cultural and political zeitgeist, but then the canvas on display here has a scale that bears comparison to the titanic undertakings of Anna Deavere Smith and Tony Kushner. Woodbury's craft may not be as polished, but her vision has a sweep and maturity that's just as thrilling to behold.

Granted, there are inherent challenges in her "living novel" form, a term she used to describe her 10-hour-plus solo theater piece, "What Ever." Book-length dramas are bound to have dull stretches, suffer from thematic overkill and cry out for more editorial discipline.

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