"To be a man is to suffer for others," declares Cesar Chavez at the start of a hunger strike that segues into a fierce ensemble number set to Don Henley's "I Will Not Go Quietly" -- one of several cultural juxtapositions that prove surprisingly effective in "Cesar & Ruben" at the NoHo Arts Center.
Expanded and reworked from its 2003 debut, writer-director-ctor Ed Begley Jr.'s musical tribute to the late farmworkers' union organizer is something of a departure from the environmental causes with which Begley is more commonly associated. Nevertheless, the passionate heart of a fellow activist beats strong and steady here, along with obvious personal loyalty (Begley knew Chavez and was a pallbearer at his funeral).
Sporting a large cast of talented Latino and Anglo performers, Begley's play presents a retrospective of the life of Chavez (Danny Bolero), framed in a surreal afterlife encounter with murdered L.A. Times columnist Ruben Salazar (Mauricio Mendoza). Scenes inventively combine dialogue with thematically related songs -- some in supertitled Spanish, others in English -- in an eclectic score that includes compositions by Enrique Iglesias, Peter Gabriel, Ruben Blades and others. All are capably sung by the performers and accompanied by Ron Snyder's versatile live five-piece band.
The inclusion of Salazar, who was shot with a tear-gas canister at point-blank range by Los Angeles police during a National Chicano Moratorium march in 1970, adds another dimension of outrage to the oppression chronicled in the piece, culminating in the no-nonsense production number set to Santana's "No One to Depend On" that closes the first act and the Phil Collins-David Crosby ballad "Hero," which opens the second. Tight choreography by Frankie Anne adds visceral impact.
Embracing epic scope and a broad spectrum of social issues, this iconic portrait sacrifices some psychological depth. Yet its timely celebratory spirit comes amid the low ebb of complacency in labor relations that Chavez once warned about. Begley's recurring use of the spiraling Tehachapi Loop railroad tracks near Chavez's birthplace is an inspired metaphor for the cyclical history of social progress, where "time bends back around on itself" and the way forward is through revisiting the past.
-- Philip Brandes
"Cesar & Ruben," NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 9. $35. (818) 508-7101 or www.thenohoartscenter.com. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
Patients' 'Cry' is loud and clear
"I am a woman
I am an artist
But I sing no victim's song
I am a woman
I am an artist
And I know where my
This refrain opens "Sometimes I Cry" with an incantatory wail that transfixes the Hayworth Theatre. Writer-performer Sheryl Lee Ralph's solo show about women battling HIV and AIDS is as resolute as it is frequently galvanic.
In a prologue laying the historical groundwork, Ralph begins at the 1981 Broadway opening of "Dreamgirls," which segues into her growing awareness of "gay men dropping dead. . . . Sick today, dead tomorrow." Yet "Sometimes I Cry" is more than a heartfelt elegy -- it's a call to arms.
After 17 years of raising money and awareness through her Diva Foundation, Ralph understands that the threat of HIV/AIDS, particularly for women and people of color, passed critical mass long ago. "Sometimes I Cry" forms an urgent jeremiad, its narrative framed by spine-tingling spirituals and punctuated by sobering statistics.
Ralph, whose star presence and vocal oomph have sometimes overshadowed her dramatic gifts, shares three representative stories from the many that she has heard as an advocate. Thus, a successful fashionista, abused foster child and widowed grandmother become correlated pieces of a devastating puzzle. Ralph lands each character and the potent message contained in their experiences with nuance, humor and arresting conviction.
Theatrically speaking, it's a tad spare -- a music stand, a stool, minimal lighting and sound cues. The proceedings might benefit from a director to tweak spatial focus and tighten some presentational aspects. That is a quibble. Overall, "Sometimes I Cry" is as determined and incisive as the remarkable actress-activist who delivers it.
-- David C. Nichols
"Sometimes I Cry," Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. 3 p.m. Sundays. $20. (800) 838-3006 or www.thehayworth .com. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Sexual perversity in London
Choosing the understated title "Eccentric" was probably the only act of restraint exercised by Las Vegas-based playwright Ernest Hemmings in scripting his black comedy about a sexually adventurous American couple's disastrous London vacation.
Not for the prudish, David L. Stewart's live-wire staging for Riprap Entertainment gleefully honors Hemmings' flair for the outrageous and the risque, overcoming limited production resources with skillful, committed performances.
Sultry Rachel Sorsa Khoury and edgy James Thomas Gilbert bring a charismatic mix of animal attraction and acerbic bickering to the disintegrating marriage of Joan and Christopher Winkerman. Seeking an antidote to unfulfilling mundane reality, their "grass is always greener" obsession with forbidden erotic fantasy is brilliantly captured when they freeze in the midst of torrid lovemaking to fixate on a porno video playing on their TV.
Characteristically turning an exploration of their most guarded hedonistic impulses into an argument, Christopher accuses Joan of lacking the "certain amount of perversion and low self-esteem" it takes to act on them. Rising to the taunt, Joan escalates things into a game of one-upmanship that leads them through a series of increasingly kinky encounters that somehow always manage to misfire.
Changing their emotional scenery with a trip to England, they find the seeming answer to their prayers in a threesome with Mona (Amanda Deibert), an uninhibited waif they lure from a party with the promise of recreational drugs.
That their willing new partner turns out to be underage is the least of the unfortunate consequences that come crashing down around them, in a sardonic descent reminiscent of a Joe Orton play.
Though artfully plotted, "Eccentric" lacks modulation in tone and rhythm in its perpetually frenetic dialogue. Khoury's Joan in particular must spend virtually the entire second act in a state of bug-eyed hysteria; pulling it off as well as she does is a remarkable accomplishment.
"Eccentric," Riprap Studio Theatre, 5755 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 26. $18. (818) 990-7498 or http://www.riprapentertain.com/tickets.html. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
'Outskirts' feels a bit unfinished
In "The Outskirts of Paradise," Jamie Virostko's promising study of marital disillusion in the rural Midwest, a Memorial Day weekend serves as catalyst for fireworks of the domestic kind. This co-presentation by Alliance Repertory Company and the MET Theatre is a throwback with a wry undercurrent.
The plot concerns the McDaniels, caught in a groove of calcified regrets. Burned-out Joe (Brad Henson) is more tacitly dissatisfied, transferring his dormant affection for his wife to his dog. Emotionally stranded Alice (Bibi Tinsley) actively questions her choices. The hot handyman (Darrell Bryan) seems responsive to flirtation, and Alice's late, much-married mother (Teddy Vincent) keeps materializing to egg her on.
Enter daughter Ellen (Royana Black) and son Jason (Warren McCullough, double-cast with Nick Ballard), inverted mirrors of their parents' disappointments. Add Joe's hectoring mother (Carolyn Freppel), and dysfunctional ironies abound.
"Outskirts" carries echoes of Lanford Wilson and hints of Beth Henley in its conflicts and snappy dialogue. Tinsley's vulnerable Alice recalls middle-period Barbara Barrie, and Henson's snide, stolid Joe centers a flavorful cast. Yet they and director Adam Legg can go only so far at solving the script's structural problems.
Many scenes take place in cars -- a major liability since their placement halts the dramatic flow on Legg's fine, skewed living room design. There is a surfeit of obviated traumas, the seriocomic elements don't always jibe, and, despite Vincent's panache, Alice's dead mom is as much device as character. "Outskirts of Paradise" isn't a bad play -- it's just not a finished one yet.
"The Outskirts of Paradise," MET Theatre's Great Scott Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends Sept. 15. $15. (323) 223-6564. Running time: 2 hours.