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Delightful 'El Henry' is a multicultural mash-up

Action (Movie Genre)Stand-up Comedy
La Jolla Playhouse's 'El Henry' is part Shakespearean comic book, part Mexican vaudeville
'El Henry,' a retelling of a Shakespeare classic by a Chicano clown, is a delightful mash-up

Location, location, location. The old real estate dictum apparently applies to the theater — at least to judge by the perfectly placed "El Henry," the latest in La Jolla Playhouse's site-specific Without Walls series.

This lively, Chicano-inflected riff on Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I," written by and starring Culture Clash'sHerbert Siguenza, is set in post-apocalyptic Aztlan City, which was previously known as San Diego before the Mexican economy crashed and millions fled across the border, retaking savage, drought-stricken California.

And the production, directed by Sam Woodhouse of San Diego REPertory Theatre (a partner with La Jolla Playhouse on this presentation), is staged in what looks like an abandoned parking lot in a dodgy part of town.

Looks can be deceiving, however. SILO, where "El Henry" runs through June 29, is in fact an outdoor event space in the East Village neighborhood of Makers Quarter, which is in the midst of a creative campaign of urban renewal.

The scenic design by Ian Wallace has junked up the ambience with milk cartons, seemingly discarded video monitors and graffiti everywhere, conjuring an exquisite backdrop of dilapidation and squalor. The moon above and the slight chill of the night breeze, along with a real-life homeless straggler or two carting his belongings in the vicinity, lend this artfully arranged Aztlan slum an even wilder edge.

Part Shakespearean comic book, part Mexican vaudeville, the play sticks to the broad outline of the first part of "Henry IV," which concentrates on Prince Hal's adventures with Falstaff and his growing rivalry with the hotheaded warrior Hotspur, who is fomenting a rebellion against Hal's father, King Henry IV. As with the original, scenes of comedy alternate with battlefield drama.

In "El Henry," Falstaff becomes Fausto, a Humpty-Dumpty-shaped libertine given to swilling other people's tequila and chasing down taco trucks. As played by the frenetically amusing Siguenza, he's also something of a stand-up comic, commenting on the action with a Falstaffian wit that's been given a fizzy Mexican Spanglish update.

Fausto, of course, is the arch vice figure who has been leading El Henry (a strikingly intense Lakin Valdez) astray. While Fausto entertains this wayward son of mobster royalty with his boasting and bamboozling, El Henry's father, El Hank (John Padilla), is finding his hold on the barrios threatened by El Tomas (Victor C. Contreras) and his wild dog of a son, El Bravo (Kinan Valdez).

A deadly battle for control of the streets ensues, and these fine actors play it as though their machismo is actually on the line. El Henry is forced to decide whether to remain a wastrel or to join the fight to protect his family's standing in this urban jungle.

Siguenza has great fun imagining the horrors of Southern California in 2045, when water has become as precious as gold and "gringo" technology (such as the iPhone 23) no longer works. Political humor, always a strong suit of Siguenza's, is mixed in with Shakespearean rants, including Falstaff's famous meditation on the nature of honor.

The verbal energy is relentless, but "El Henry" requires more than agile tongues and booming voices from its indefatigable cast, which includes standout work from Roxane Carrasco in a number of fierce female roles. This is physical theater at its most cardio-intensive.

The second half tumbles forward like an action movie staged live, complete with Wallace's colorful video projections, a few cars that seem borrowed from old school pimps and the kinetic, tongue-in-cheek choreography of Javier Velasco. Edgar Landa's swiftly moving fight direction infuses the climax with general suspense.

More fun than an empty-headed summer blockbuster, "El Henry" is a dinging ice cream truck of theatrical entertainment.

Maybe next summer this agreeably silly show could make its way to us. Los Angeles could surely provide a suitable locale, and Siguenza could easily relocate the action a hundred miles or so up north. But no matter where the fictional story is set or when it arrives, this retelling of a Shakespeare classic by a modern-day Chicano clown is a delightful mash-up of curiously compatible cultural sensibilities.

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'El Henry'

Where: SILO, 753 15th St., San Diego

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Tickets: $25

Contact: (858) 550-1010 or http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org

Running time: 2 hours

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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