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It was a third-grade history lesson on civil rights and Rosa Parks that spawned Brian Quijada’s one man show, “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” Blacks were in the back, whites up front. What about Mexican-Americans like him?

“You weren’t around,” his teacher answered.  With that hook Quijada draws us in to his compelling personal story – largely based on his performing skills and big personality.

I harbor some diffidence about one-man shows, which can easily veer into narcissism. Quijada’s provocative title piqued my interest, and a mix-up in schedules had me with a couple hours open just as the lights came up for the matinee.

Apparently, others are on to what a great performer Quijada is: the theater was full for this return engagement of a show he wrote, choreographed, and for which he masters loops and overdubs into a nice accompaniment, built around his creditable singing and some well-chosen chords on his electric ukulele. It’s part of the Up Close and Personal series at www.Victorygardens.org

This story of a 28-year-old Chicagoland native, now making his way onto stages around the country, and into New York theater scene, has a lot of charm. After about 20 minutes it is clear Quijada is a natural born performer, and he has built an enticing showcase of his performance capabilities – almost like a general audition that shows his dancing and singing skills, as he recounts his resume on the stage starting from grammar school, through turns at everything from Shakespeare to Broadway musicals.    

But Quijada’s story takes a more serious turn as he recounts the discrimination he encountered. And when we reach the part about his marriage to a German woman from Europe, and their prospect of having children, he understands he must bring answers to his future offspring.

That rapidly becomes a compelling tale of self-discovery, punctuated with hip hop and dance numbers that are as entertaining as the stories he recounts. The longest journey is through his father’s rejection of his theatrical career. He wanted to see him take up a safer, more practical trade to earn a living.

Quijada maintains his focus as he also defines himself in the world – still trying to answer that third-grade puzzle. His parents don’t have a story in the national narrative – no Mayflower, no slave ships, no Ellis Island. They weren’t there. They had to sneak in, unseen – a lightning rod now but written several years before the current tempest about immigration.  

Quijada brings a tale of magical realism to his family history, and this one-man show rises to general significance for all of us, culminating in his journey to New York, where Quijada provides us a powerful insight on seeing the State of Liberty, sharing those famous words of the poem:

Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

This extra two lines we hear less often. They made all the differences that afternoon. And like everyone around me I laughed, I cried, and I rose to applaud.  Don’t miss this Teatro Vista production at the Victory Gardens Theatre through June  4.  Really recommended.

Published in Theatre in Review

The lights come up as a dark-haired young, Latino - bloodied, bruised, battered -  launches  into an adrenaline-fueled monolog.  

Facing the audience, Abe (Gabe Ruiz) is talking a mile a minute to an unseen clerk in the wee hours at a convenience store. From the torrent we piece together clues - Abe has survived a harrowing event. 

From this opening, playwright Ike Holter toggles the audience between puzzlement and certainty as The Wolf at the End of the Block tells its story in increments. This high-energy thriller gradually unfolds details that at each bend make us re-examine what we thought we knew. 

Though serious and even tense, The Wolf is never dreary - the pace and light-hearted delivery, the playful banter of the characters, keep it from veering into a diatribe. These are people who manage to extract the joy and happiness when and where they find it, while  they can.  

The next morning we find Abe awaited by sister Miranda (Ayssette Muñóz) and boss Nunley (Bear Bellinger) at the restaurant where he works, since Abe did not come home last night. He arrives - more lucid but still in shock - and reveals he was attacked in a police bar in an anti-Hispanic hate crime. Ethnic slurs were hurled, fists flew.   

Holter takes us deeper: Miranda, a citizen journalist,  feeds this crime lead to Frida, renowned TV newscaster. After vetting Abe's recount, Frida decides she will run with the story. Sandra Marquez  delivers Frida as a savvy yet jaded reporter  - talking in a clip that seems to be ripped right out of The Front Page. The story passes muster as one that will work on TV. 

We follow as Holter digs even further:  the sister Miranda determines Abe has held back something from Frida - he was drinking more than he said and may have instigated the fight. Frida doesn't care; she will use the part of the story that works for the viewers. 

At another point, Nunley, Abe's African-American boss, reveals he has a tape of Abe that may show him stealing - we are never quite sure. We are with Nunley when he enounters the cop James (James Farrugio is perfectly sinister) who may have beaten Abe, and we share Nunley's fear and intimidation.  

Against the current  turbulent political landscape, the play also examines the role of facts in media, and how motive can affect which truth is revealed, or suppressed. 

Having its world premiere, Teatro Vista's The Wolf at the End of the Block is engrossing, well acted and well produced - and is readily recommended. Holter is considered an up and coming writer - at moments he shows a structure and even lyricism along with pragmatic realism. This is the kind of theater we want to see more of.  It runs through March 5 at the Victory Gardens Theatre.  

Published in Theatre in Review
Thursday, 16 April 2015 00:00

Review: Between You, Me and the Lampshade

As Chekov supposedly once said, if you bring a gun out in act one, it better go off by act three. Raul Castillo’s new play for Teatro Vista, ‘Between You, Me and the Lampshade’ goes for a metaphoric interpretation of the old rule.

The play starts off with a rush of adrenaline as a mysteriously battered young woman (Aysette Munoz) breaks into the trailer home of Jesse (Sandra Marquez). Jesse stands armed with a rifle, and from there a riveting dialog about race, immigration and love unfolds over 90 minutes.

Castillo’s play is largely plot-driven in an old school kinda way, but he raises it from the pot-boiler genre with the poetic yearnings of a Mexican couple stuck between two countries and on the run from border patrol. Castillo also goes on to comment on the inter-minority caste system. Jesse though Latina, denies her home intruder from calling her senorita or speaking Spanish. She even goes on to use racial slurs. The characters’ use of the vernacular and a plethora of double-negatives subtly provide a very realistic atmosphere of life in southern Texas.

The play isn’t without its lightness. A touching scene between Jesse’s teenage son Woody (Tommy Rivera-Vega) and his gamer, cyber pal K-Ten (Bryce Gangel) hits on issues of loneliness and the feeling of being misunderstood even in a place where everyone speaks the same language. When the cyber pal actually shows up in real life, a romantic current emerges.

The cast works well together under the direction of Ricardo Gutierrez. Bryce Gangel’s self-involved and blissfully unaware character brings with her most of the show’s comedy.  Sandra Marquez is very sure of herself in the role of a flailing mother and reluctant aid, with authentic reactions that are at times abrasive, which is to say very human. Ayssette Munoz as a woman on the run makes careful choices, without veering into melodrama. While this is not yet a perfect play, Raul Castillo’s undoubtedly a talented playwright with the foundation of a provocative play that calls for immigration reform. 

Through May 10th - Teatro Vista at Victory Gardens Theatre. 2433 N Lincoln Ave. 773-871-3000

Published in Theatre Reviews
Sunday, 15 February 2015 00:00

Review: Samsara at Victory Gardens Theatre

Lauren Yee's new play at Victory Gardens Theatre is a refreshing addition to the modern canon of American playwriting, in the ilk of Sarah Ruhl and Noah Haidle. 'Samsara' was developed by Victory Garden's annual Ignition festival, a contest seeking minority voices.

 

Yee takes a meta-theatrical look at the world of surrogacy in turns of comedy and disturbing practicalities. The style in which this story is told is its most unique quality. With the prevalence of MFA playwriting programs, more often we're seeing stories being told in non-traditional formats. Sometimes that includes talking fetuses and our inner monologues manifesting themselves in character. Is this the future of theatre? If so, how exciting.

 

In 'Samsara' couple Craig and Katie (played by Joe Dempsey and Lori Myers) are desperate to fix the rut in their life with a baby, only they can't have one themselves and can't afford the myriad of domestic options. Instead they outsource to India, as so many corporations are want to do these days. Katie's fear of travel prevents her from going to India so she sends her bumbling husband while she stays home and has an affair with her fantasy man who happens to be a construct of her imagination. The factory surrogate, Suraiya (Ayra Daire) also seems to be in a bit of a rut, hoping to use her baby-money for medical school. She begins a relationship with her unborn fetus whom she affectionately refers to as Shithead. With all the unspent energy of an annoying toddler, Behzad Dabu as the fetus, gives the show's most lively performance.

 

On the whole, the plot and thematic events of the show are not unchartered territory but it's the way Miss Yee tells her tale that makes this an unforgettable experience. She has a special talent for incorporating the everyday with the fantastic, illuminating the deepest doubts and regrets of our minds in a way that's uplifting and topical. Perhaps Yee's interpretation of samsara is that everything happens for a reason in this cycle of life. 

 

Samsara at Victory Gardens Theatre. 2433 N Lincoln Ave. 773-549-5788. Through March 8th. 

 

*Photo by Michael Courier

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