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Entertainment & Arts

Review: An East L.A. memoir comes to life in ‘Always Running’ at Casa 0101 Theater

Luis (Rufino Romero), right, has a mentor and friend in Chente (Joshua Nicholas) in “Always Running” at Casa 0101 Theater.
Luis (Rufino Romero), right, has a mentor and friend in Chente (Joshua Nicholas) in “Always Running” at Casa 0101 Theater.
(Ed Krieger)

“Always running,” the former East Los Angeles gang member Luis says as the first words of his opening monologue, words that also provide the title of the play at Casa 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights. “Always running, that’s what my life was about.”

True to his word, Luis does spend his youth dodging violence and drugs in “Always Running,” Luis J. Rodriguez and Hector Rodriguez’s stage adaption of Luis’ memoir, “Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.” The Casa 0101 production, which Hector directs, follows a young man as he struggles to distance himself from the gang life that he has been a part of since elementary school.

The story is rich and thematically compelling, Luis’ inner conflict complex. On one hand, Luis (Rufino Romero) has a potent bond with his community and fellow gang members. On the other side, he has a desire to learn and grow — to escape the violence — aided by youth center mentor Chente (Joshua Nicholas).

With a story so layered, pacing and structure are key, and unfortunately many of the scenes in “Always Running” feel rushed. Deaths and major confrontations pass by in a couple of minutes, while more expository scenes linger for longer than necessary.

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The second act begins successfully with a long jail cell conversation and the signing of a truce between the rival gangs, but then the play time-jumps with montage-like speed. Slowed action juxtaposed with sped-up moments results in the production feeling simultaneously disjointed and dragged out.

Fall theater season highlights for Los Angeles include a musical version of “Almost Famous,” Bill Irwin in “On Beckett,” a revival of August Wilson’s “Jitney” and a new stand-up show by comic Mike Birbiglia.

These structural problems almost get in the way of the strongest element of the play: a talented cast with chemistry. The ensemble drives the production forward, finding at the core of the story a palpable sense of community. The relationships, whether Luis with Chente or Luis with his close friends, convey high emotional stakes amid all the action.

It is Luis’ relationship with his first love interest — Viviana (Rachel Lemos), the sister of a rival gang member — that’s not only vividly compelling but also symbolic of larger themes. In the scene of their first kiss, Viviana begs Luis not to join a fight and pleads that he “please, please, please” stay with her. It is one of the most cathartic moments in this vivid L.A. story, strengthening one more key relationship for this play: that between Luis and the audience.

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'Always Running'
Where: Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 E. 1st St., Boyle Heights
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 20. Also 3 p.m. Sept. 21. No performances Sept. 27-29
Tickets: $20-$25
Info: (323) 263-7684, www.casa0101.org

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