STAGE REVIEW : POLITICAL ARDOR REVAMPED IN ‘LA VICTIMA’
Times were when the sort of rousing, self-assertive theater “La Victima” offers at the Los Angeles Theatre Center was the strongest thrust of Chicano Theater.
We are talking here about the early 1970s and the quantum leaps then made by Luis Valdez and his El Teatro Campesino, the outstanding model for all theaters of its kind, climaxing with its landmark production of “Zoot Suit.”
Since then, what little Chicano theater remains has moved in less assured mainstream directions--or attempted to (as in Valdez’s “Corridos” and “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges,” seen just last season at LATC).
“La Victima,” a vintage piece by the once-Santa Barbara-based El Teatro de la Esperanza (now relocated in Northern California), has been kicking around for a number of years. At LATC, it receives a revamped, anglicized, clarified staging by Jose Luis Valenzuela that lies somewhere among the immigration abstractions of “Green Card” (recently at the Mark Taper Forum), the romanticisms of the movie “El Norte” and a softened approach to the Campesino-style teatro of the early ‘70s. Call it the ‘80s sentimentalization of agitprop.
In semilinear form, “La Victima” traces the history of Mexicans in America from the early 1900s to the present. It is a subjective but factual view that uses the peregrinations of one family to illustrate the abuses (including that most pernicious one: co-option) to which Mexicans have been subjected in America.
A Mexican-American family, driven back to Mexico when Latinos were the first to lose their jobs during the Great Depression, is accidentally separated from one of its children, Samuelito (E.J. Castillo). The boy, adopted by another Mexican-American family, grows up in the States while his natural family remains in Mexico. Years later, when his siblings illegally reenter this country in search of a better life, he is accidentally reunited with his mother (an unflappable Lupe Ontiveros).
The mother is central to these activities, smuggled back into the States by her kids, arrested when she tries to stand by them in a picket line, eventually deported by her own son. Her INS interrogator is none other than Samuelito, torn about the job he has to do, pressured into it by his colleagues (who find his Latino origins a plus) and his own Mexican-American wife, who wants the extra money the “field” work provides.
Until these final 20 minutes or so, “La Victima” is a capably structured, jocular, self-spoofing and self-assertive piece that drives home its points with strong humor and a subtext fraught with warnings. Where it falters is at the moment of recognition between mother and son.
Not only would the piece deliver a terrific punch if we could be left suspecting Samuelito all but knew he was deporting his own mother, but it would spare us the relentless sentimental wallow that follows--with the son given to nightmares as his wife tries to calm him and his accusing mother looks on.
That is all superfluous and weakening. The play is essentially over when the mother boards the train, with its fearful echoes of Jews ushering Jews onto deportation trains in Europe, or accounts of the not-entirely-dead being stuffed into crematoria and silenced.
Not only would the intermissionless “La Victima” gain immeasurably from the starkness of the abbreviation, but it would widen its scope, making much larger ripples.
The piece is heavily underscored by music (rousing, original stuff by Marcos Loya, integrally performed by him with Jesse J. Rangel and Jacinto Guevara) and equally well complemented by Jose de Santiago’s clever but simple set of sliding panels representing the ever-present trains--and suitcases (the building blocks of human lives). De Santiago’s costumes and lights are also impressive: suggestive without being overdone.
Above all, it’s the ensemble of performers one admires, most of whom play more than one role with an eagerness and imagination to match the juice in the material. Notable among them are the spunky Ontiveros, Castillo (as child and adult), Abel Franco, J. EDmundo Araiza and Victoria Racimo.
Most astonishing of all is how invigorating it is to rediscover in “La Victima” some of the political ardor that dominated the theater of the early ‘70s--and performed here by Latino actors who have become much more seasoned in the interim. This is a valid piece, not great literature, but far more passionate and instinctual than, say, “Green Card,” even if it still needs work.
The muscle is already there. Only the fat needs trimming.
Performances at 514 S. Spring St. are Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m., until Feb. 22. Tickets $10-$22 (213-627-5599.)
A play presented by the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St. Writers El Teatro de la Esperanza. Director Jose Luis Valenzuela. Set, lighting and costumes Jose de Santiago. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Original music Marcos Loya. Choreographer Tamara Hurwitz Pullman. Stage manager Jill Johnson. Assistant stage manager Steve Donner. Cast J. EDmundo Araiza, Eric Andrist, Hunt Burdick, E.J. Castillo, Evelina Fernandez, Abel Franco, Sean Jackson, Benita Martinez, Lupe Ontiveros, Victoria Racimo, Peter Schreiner. Musicians Marcos Loya, Jacinto Guevara, Jesse J. Rangel Jr. Tickets: $10-$22. Performances Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m. Matinees on Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Until Feb. 22 (213-627-5599).