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There's no denying the power of a star

Diego Luna makes an unusual U-turn to the stage for `Festen.'

January 13, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Ugly, painful secrets. Practically every family has them, though many refuse to face them.

What child hasn't flinched at the knowledge of his parents' inner demons? What parent hasn't felt shivers of trepidation upon discovering that their little boy or girl has turned into a full-blown, unfathomable adult?

These thoughts were racing through Diego Luna's mind one recent night, half an hour before he was due onstage in "Festen" (The Celebration), currently this capital city's toughest ticket to score. Thanks to Luna's star presence, seats likely will be equally scarce if the producers succeed in their dreams of bringing the show to Los Angeles this spring.

Adapted from the 1998 chamber-drama movie directed by Denmark's Thomas Vinterberg, who is part of the Dogme95 collective that includes Lars von Trier, "Festen" suggests a Latin American telenovela scripted by Henrik Ibsen, at least in its present Spanish-language version at the 420-seat Teatro Helenico. Freely combining melodrama, tragedy and farcical elements, the intimate production radiates a characteristically Mexican sense of absurdist humor and emotional hyperbole while keeping faith with its stern Nordic pedigree.

What's most unusual about "Festen," though, is that an actor of Luna's international recognition would be in it. Unlike London, New York or Los Angeles, in Mexico actors with established film or TV careers almost never perform live on stage, even if that's where they started out, as Luna did at age 6. When "Festen" opened to mainly positive reviews two months ago, some Mexico City critics credited him simply for taking time off from movies to return to his roots.

"It was in the theater that I discovered that to act was basically what I wanted to do," says the 27-year-old performer, whose upcoming movie roles include one of the leads in "El Bufalo de la Noche" (The Night Buffalo), which will be shown at this month's Sundance Film Festival.

The plot of "Festen" is deceptively simple. Helge Hansen, the family patriarch played by Luis Rabago, is marking his 60th birthday in style with a black-tie dinner at his luxurious manse outside Copenhagen. Candles are lighted, wine is poured and the guests chatter blithely along. Until, that is, Helge's troubled son Christian (Luna) shatters the festive aura with a terrible disclosure.

"This celebration ... is where the monsters begin to come out, and the cracks begin to emerge that are between this family," says Luna, who broke into world cinematic consciousness six years ago portraying another young man on maturity's precipice in "Y Tu Mama Tambien."

"Alfonso Cuaron, who directed 'Y Tu Mama Tambien,' says a very beautiful phrase," Luna continues in Spanish. "He said, 'The innocence of the parent begins when that of their children ends.' When children lose their innocence, when children realize that Santa Claus doesn't exist, it's when the parents begin to say, 'No, my child is studying. My child is fine. He hasn't tried drugs. He hasn't had sexual relations. No, my child, no, no!' And we dedicate ourselves to feeding this big lie."

Does that apply to Luna's own family too?

"Ay, ay, ay!" he says in mock-anguish, putting his hands to his face and motioning backstage to remind a reporter that Luna's father, Alejandro Luna, is the show's scenic and lighting designer.

"It's a very curious thing, because I am telling this story together with my father. My mother died when I was 2 years old. And I have had a very close relationship with my father, a very friendly relationship. On the contrary, in fact we know each other too much."

Like Los Angeles, the Mexican capital teems with theater of all genres and degrees of skill: dopey sex farces; Spanish-language adaptations of Broadway hits ("The Producers" is currently packing 'em in); and top experimental theater from across Latin America, much of it presented at universities. Yet like Los Angeles, Mexico City is seldom regarded by outsiders as a theater town.

Since opening on Nov. 2, "Festen" has established itself as a rarity here, a thoughtful hit drama that manages to be highly entertaining while aspiring to do more than entertain. So far it has notched about 80 performances, most of them sold out. More significantly, it has attracted a relatively diverse audience, despite a stiff $35 ticket price that is far beyond the reach of most Mexicans.

Its success has encouraged the show's producers to launch a national tour that will open Monday in Guadalajara and include stops in Tijuana, Ensenada, Monterrey, Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez. By March or April, the producers hope to bring "Festen" to a number of U.S. burgs, including Los Angeles and Chicago, though no dates or venues have been nailed down.

Although Luna unquestionably draws the crowds, "Festen" is a true ensemble piece, and the cast includes several actors who are well known from Mexican television and movies, among them Jose Maria Yazpik, Diana Bracho and Monica Dionne.

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