By Patrick Hurley
Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) is hosting Encuentro 2014 a national theater festival, offering new and previously produced theatrical events and plays through November 10. Some of the highlights of the festival are the 2012 Pulitzer-Prize winner Agua a Cucharadas (Water by the Spoonful) by Quiara Alegria Hudes, which has five showings between October 30 and November 8. Aurora Theatre/Teatro del Sol is presenting Mariela en la Desierto, playing October 16-October 25. El Teatro Campesino’s La Esquinita, USA, is a one-man show about a small town’s struggle with outsourcing all of its jobs to China, written and performed by Ruben C. Gonzales. The festival includes many more plays as well off-site programming, selected play readings, and free events. The events range from discussions on one person shows to a panel that explores the connection between literature and theater. It is a month long theater festival that includes 150 artists and 19 theater companies from across the country, all coming together to share cultural, vital, and important works throughout the Latino/a community.
I was fortunate to catch a performance of Premeditation which is playing through November 8. It is the classic story of the miscommunications between married men and women, but told through the lens of a Chicano-noir. Unfamiliar with the style, it is intriguing to enter the smoke-filled theater with its large plain backdrop and nearly bare stage, and watch the top of the show fill the room with music, projected images, and rhythmic movements. The choreographed opening is perhaps the visual highlight of the show. The cast dances with furniture pieces, setting the scene, and moving with such controlled severity that the entire thematic structure of the show is revealed before a single word is spoken.
The story is about a pair of unhappy housewives, Esmerelda (Evelina Fernandez) and Lydia (Lucy Rodriguez). Both dealing with trouble in their marriages. Esmerelda is a sophisticated, upper-class woman who finds herself at the end of her marital rope, and in her desperation hires a hit man (Sal Lopez) to “take care” of her husband. The only problem is that she hires a hit man, Lydia’s husband, who is dealing with his own moral issues, and wants a good reason to kill her husband. The absence of a solid reason leads to a lengthy discussion between the two about the merits of love, life, and individuality culminating in a showdown that tests not only the boundaries of love but of life and death.
The play is brilliantly staged. Directed by LATC artistic director Jose Luis Valenzuela, it’s 1940s noir mixed with Sirk-esque melodrama that plays out like some strange mix of Double Indemnity meets Written on the Wind. The combination of style allows for the characters to walk the fine line of fully realized and caricature. Luckily, the tone never allows for them to go too far, and they seem to stay on the side of realized. This is due to Mr. Valenzuela’s deft comedic touch. He paces the show perfectly. Allowing for moments to slow down, sometimes to an unnatural speed that then propels the tension and the humor when it speeds back up. The moments when two characters stop to look at one another suspiciously, which becomes a running joke reminiscent of something from Monty Python or Mel Brooks, are hilarious and effective. They aren’t merely visual punchlines, but rather intricate tellings about the characters psychology.
The visual projections and sound effects, particularly when a character lights a cigarette—a sound effect of a lighter and that crackling paper sound of the first puff—romanticizes the act of smoking and enhances the noir feel of the show. The large backdrop has moving black and white images for most of the show, which amplifies style for certain moments, but is also a detractor for others, especially when images repeat themselves. There were a few close-ups of people’s severe looking faces that seem to keep reappearing, and it pulls focus. The shadows, however, are exceptionally well used, as is all of the lighting. The technical work behind this show is stunning, and always just right for the mood and tone.
The cast does a very good job maintaining the over-the-top, larger-than-life themes and dialogue. The play was written by Evelina Fernandez, who also plays Esmerelda, with solid humor, mostly in the form of strained overwriting. That is to say that the loquacious nature of some of the characters allows us to laugh at them, rather than with them. They speak flatly at times, and feel the need to over explain everything. Esmerelda herself has some pretty preposterous dialogue. Her line about life being a “conglomeration of opposing forces,” is not only garrulous, but just simply gives away a device for creating conflict. It’s the writer telling us what the play is about. This style of writing is definitely more melodrama than Noir, and so is acceptable because that is the world of the play. The language is very histrionic and the look is more noir. There is a dysfunctional “marriage” of these two opposing styles, which allows for the play to be quite funny, and also serves to highlight the opposition of the characters as well. This is not to say that it doesn’t suffer a little for it. It does. It tries too hard to evoke and mock at the same time, and that can feel forced. The shift in tone from hyperbolic to sincere should be unacceptable, but it stays true enough to its own speciousness as to appear, at times, actually genuine. That may be a strength or hindrance depending on the scene. But what does pull the show back from the edge is the fact that the humor is always nearby.
Overall, this is an entertaining and visually delightful piece of theater. Is it over the top? Yes. And it almost falls victim to becoming the thing it’s making fun of, but it’s grand conclusion and frenetic energy allow us to suspend our disbelief long enough to enjoy the ride. It is a wonderful addition to the festival, and one that is definitely worth a look.
Tickets for Encuentro, and more info about the festival itself, are available online at www.thelatc.org.
Los Angeles Theatre Center
514 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA 90013
Now through November 10.
Photos by Ed Krieger.