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Fresh, Ambitious ‘Sarita’ in an Old Venue

Built in 1931, the time-worn Labor Temple in Pasadena is an unprepossessing facility to house a theater. However, the Dramatic New Arts, an up-and-coming company midway through its first season at the Temple, displays a youthful freshness that contrasts dramatically with the battered building.

“Sarita,” Maria Irene Fornes’ play with music about a young Puerto Rican girl growing up in 1940s New York City, is an ambitious choice for this young company--and in some aspects, the production falls short of a professional standard. The threadbare tenement setting has a slipshod quality that seems more the result of overall carelessness than creative intent. Also, the actors are, in the main, ill-equipped to handle the vocal requirements of Leon Odenz’s score.

However, Mary Tomlinson directs with a rough urgency that suits the play’s offbeat blend of camp and melodrama. The diminutive Georgina Padilla amply fleshes out her character as the feisty Sarita, a victim of rampant hormones and limited opportunity. Among the capable supporting cast, Stefan Lysenko particularly shines as the magnetic Julio, a smarmy opportunist who exploits Sarita’s sensual nature and blights her life.

Fornes’ deeply feminist period piece, which takes us inside the life of a powerless young woman on the fringe of American society, is funny, unabashedly emotional and ultimately very moving.

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* “Sarita,” Dramatic New Arts, 42 E. Walnut, Pasadena. Fridays-Sundays, 8. $10-$12. Ends Sept. 11. (818) 568-9850. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

‘Palm Fever’ Bravely Bites the Big Orange

Los Angeles is a study in contradiction, a tract of lush desert where the freeways flow alongside arid riverbeds and opulence dwells in the shadow of squalor. Ever-shifting, ever-mutating, the object of envy and derision, Los Angeles is ineffable. Any attempt to define or categorize it is innately problematic.

In her attempted evocation of Los Angeles life, “Palm Fever,” at Playwrights’ Arena, playwright Jean Colonomos bravely takes a bite of the Big Orange--and chokes. A highly stylized melange, “Fever” dramatizes the most obvious images, events and conditions associated with L.A., from the Rodney G. King trial to the burgeoning gun culture to the homeless problem to the omnipresent palm tree, which Colonomos employs as the primary archetype in her stilted symbology.

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Colonomos’ occasional flashes of wit fail to illuminate what is admittedly a difficult subject. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera is unfortunately collegiate in his staging, which puts one in mind of a remedial class on theater game techniques.

The essence of this elusive city can be found in its sprawling ebullience, a vital component that is sadly missing from this somewhat claustrophobic production.

* “Palm Fever,” Playwrights’ Arena, 5262 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 17. $12. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.


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