In the annals of romance, Magno Rubio's match with Clarabelle is certainly one of the least auspicious.
He's a Filipino migrant farm worker in '30s California, only 4 feet 6 inches tall. She's a strawberry blond Arkansas woman whose photo in a lonely hearts magazine has caught his attention. Long before they actually meet, the mismatch is clear -- to everyone except Magno. In her letters, Clarabelle keeps dunning Magno for handouts for her supposedly needy relatives. And Magno learns that Claro, the fellow farm worker who was initially writing Magno's letters for him, has initiated his own correspondence with Clarabelle.
The ending is predictable -- but you can't say that about the live-wire play that tells Magno's story, "The Romance of Magno Rubio." It's a rejuvenating jolt for audiences at Laguna Playhouse. In its fervent theatricality as well as its subject, "Magno Rubio" is a big leap from the realistic middle-class comedies that often appear at Laguna.
The play is virtually a musical. True, the cast breaks into composer Fabian Obispo's melodies only occasionally, and no choreographer is credited. Still, Lonnie Carter's text throbs with rhyme and rhythm, and Loy Arcenas' staging adds literally striking effects -- the actors often wield farm implements as percussion instruments.
Jojo Gonzalez, in the title role, has a frenzied solo in which he illustrates how hard he's working to raise money for Clarabelle. It's impressive.
Clarabelle's letters are enacted by Ramon de Acampo, one of the men in the cast who otherwise plays a comrade of Magno's. He takes a spotlighted position at the side and transforms his voice into that of a seductively Southern and very femme con artist.
When Clarabelle finally arrives in California, her body is depicted in silhouette by Orville Mendoza, the biggest of the men on stage, standing behind billowing fabric. The effect makes her image larger than life.
Mendoza is the only actor in the five-man cast who wasn't in the original production by Ma-Yi Theatre Company in New York last year. That staging also was by Arcenas, so most of this group has been together long enough that the ensemble work looks seamless.
That Magno's name is reminiscent of "big rube" is no accident, but the appealing Gonzalez makes us believe that the character's attitude is a blessing more than a liability. Carter, who adapted a short story by the Filipino American migrant worker-turned-writer Carlos Bulosan, maintains an upbeat sense of human resilience despite the characters' dire conditions.
Art Acuna's kindly narrator and sometime translator and Ron Domingo's friendly cook, who longs for the woman he left back home, contribute to the general sense of hope.
Arcenas' set, on the other hand, emphasizes the grimmer realities, providing wire bars -- easy to see around but nonetheless suggestive of confinement -- at the front of a brown and plain stage. But the stage is often lit with gorgeous golden hues by James Vermeulen.
Tagalog is strewn throughout the text -- sometimes translated, occasionally not. But the gist of "Magno Rubio" is clear, and Magno's bighearted spirit is energizing.
'The Romance of Magno Rubio'
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach,
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, Nov. 24, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-
Sundays, 2 p.m.; Sundays,
7 p.m. Dark Thanksgiving Day.
Ends: Dec. 7 matinee
Contact: (949) 497-2787
Running Time: 1 hour,
Jojo Gonzalez...Magno Rubio
Ramon de Acampo...Atoy/Clarabelle
By Lonnie Carter. Adapted from a short story by Carlos Bulosan. Tagalog text by Ralph B. Pena. Directed and sets by Loy Arcenas. Costumes by Myung Hee Cho. Lighting by James Vermeulen. Music and sound by Fabian Obispo. Production stage manager Nancy Staiger.