The 1,200 seats in the Ricardo Montalban Theatre remain empty even though audiences are showing up to witness the first efforts of a group delivering the sort of original Latino programming long anticipated at the underused facility.
Starting small, Nosotros American Latino Theatre is using just a portion of the Hollywood hall for its presentation of two new one-act plays. Theatergoers are sent past the auditorium seats and up onto the stage, where folding chairs have been arranged on tiered platforms enfolding three sides of a playing area. The curtain is dropped when the performance is about to begin, sealing off the stage and transforming it into a rudimentary 99-seat theater.
The presentation is similarly rudimentary. There are no sets, so the plays' worlds must be conjured almost entirely through suggestion. Inventive directing and playful performances go a long way toward making this happen. And so, the double bill's collective title, "Transformations," is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
As one of its primary objectives, the fledgling Nosotros group wants to nurture Latino writers, directors and actors. Here, it moves toward that goal by presenting two short plays by Jake Meyers, a lawyer and aspiring writer. His comic take on Latino-community concerns isn't terribly deep, but director David Llauger-Meiselman and 11 actors work the material for all it's worth.
A cappella, the cast sings reworked lyrics to the Ricky Martin hit "Livin' la Vida Loca" to help set the tone for "Lauren Martin," in which the title character experiences the crazy backlash of a system that deems her too well assimilated. Lauren, a young broadcast journalist, interviews for a reporting position meant to be filled by someone of Hispanic ethnicity, only to be told that she isn't Latina enough for the job. Thus begins a journey toward discovery as Lauren revisits her family's history of assimilation so that it could move ahead while immersing herself in today's Latino culture to see what more she might learn from it.
A similar musical motif -- this time, Village People's "Macho Man" -- is used to put across the humor in "Close but No Cohiba," in which a young man finds himself rethinking Latino culture's cult of masculinity.
Though cohabiting with his girlfriend, Jack finds himself dreaming about analysis sessions in which Sigmund Freud seems to plant the idea that Jack might be gay. Soon thereafter, the dream expands to include a sexual encounter between Jack and one of his buddies -- a sequence that, as staged by Llauger-Meiselman, wackily deploys fantasy versions of significant people in Jack's life.
In both pieces, the actors make a strong commitment to the material. Estrella Tamez as Lauren and Antonio Vega as Jack contribute particularly honest, engaging performances. In smaller roles that humorously riff on male Latino behavior, Joel Roman shows promise as a comic goofball.
The ambitions -- and the results -- are modest as the Nosotros group makes this first appearance as a guest at the theater owned by the Ricardo Montalban Foundation. Here's hoping it grows into its goals.
Where: Ricardo Montalban Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Price: $6 and $12
Contact: (323) 463-0089 or www.nosotros.org
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes