Thursday, August 15, 2013
Theater review: Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown tells poignant immigrant story
Playwright Guillermo Reyes will attend talkback sessions following August 23 and 24 performances.
DOWNTOWN DALLAS What’s it like to be a young Latino man arriving in America for the first time? The fear and excitement, hopes and disappointments are daily challenges that might sometimes border on terror. Now imagine he’s gay and even more ostracized in his home country. America must look like Mecca but then reality sets in. Hopes get dashed, excitement gets squashed and fear grows to epic proportions. How a young man deals with this journey is the story of his life and of this play.
Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown tells this story through the eyes of seven characters, each delivering a monologue about their time in America. Joe Watts directed this production by Guillermo Reyes, celebrated Chilean-born playwright, author and Arizona professor. Watts, recently of the Houston theater scene, brought his daring production styles and this popular 1994 work to Teatro Dallas through his new production company, Theatre New West. Reyes’ work won Theater LA Ovation Awards in 1994 and it’s easy to see why Watts liked this play so much.
You would think the themes here might play out as pathos or tragedy. You would be wrong. Reyes, who himself immigrated to America as a young man, tells this story through comedic monologues, and it was genuinely funny while thought-provoking and truthful.
Watts used a simple set in Teatro Dallas’ very intimate theater, with just a few small furniture pieces, hanging drapes as a backdrop and a Calderesque rug. This allowed for simple movement by each actor with minimal resetting, each actor reusing props and settings in his own way. The pacing was fast, under ninety minutes. Simple colored wash lighting filled the small stage, with an occasional spotlight during some scenes, and music played through rapid scene changes. All of this was provided by Tone Frey who also staged managed and was listed as graphics designer. This setting created maximum focus for each actor performing his monologue.
Chris Ramirez opened and closed the play as Federico, the naïve optimist who came to America following implied invitations from various American lovers he met in his home country. When he arrived on their doorsteps in Los Angeles, however, his hopeful welcome turned to slammed doors. In letters to his mama, he describes his rejections and impressions of the America he discovered, far different from what he imagined. Ramirez played Federico with a child-like innocent enthusiasm that made him come alive as both a revealer of the American ills he saw and as a resilient man who carried a patriotic torch of Americanism. In Federico’s first encounters in Los Angeles, he lived through the Watts riots and later the Northridge earthquake, yet his optimistic dream continued. Ramirez used his whole body to tell his story, drawing the audience into his experience.
Each of the other actors played two different characters alternating their scenes throughout the play.
Edgar Estrada first played Vinnie, a Columbian “kept-man” being evicted by his long-time sugar-daddy because he turned thirty. Estrada’s mannerisms and text revealed a major conflict within Vinnie, as he weighed the love for his benefactor against a corresponding fear of his future. There was a palpable sense that Vinnie was in love and hurt that he would be turned out.
With his second character, Estrada donned a completely different personality from Vinnie. He played the glamorous La Gitana, who was first revealed in bed suffering with AIDS. At one time a successful drag Flamenco dancer from Spain, we saw real tragedy in Estrada’s portrayal as he made La Gitana, like many old performers, dream about the glory days. We watched Estrada pathetically recreate a bit of glamour in la Gitana’s now-painful dance.
Jose Quinones played Edward Thornhill III, a thoroughly confused Hollywood actor who had expunged his Latino roots to pose as a straight Anglo actor. But then he got cast in a Latino part and had to seek help from the Hispanic Hotline to learn how to become Latino. Quinones laid out this story with the requisite identity crisis you’d expect Edwardo was going through. As Quinones kept layering on more complications to Edwardo’s predicament, the confusion grew more chaotic. You could see that it was not funny to him at all, but was hilarious to us.
Quinones returned a few scenes later as the Demon Roommate, an asexual man with an apartment for rent. The apartment, as well as the man, had big issues. Quinones shifted persona easily to this very different, flawed character and his story became the most outrageous in the play, though it didn’t seem to fit the general theme as much. But it was funny and a nice turn from the play’s more serious themes.
Armando Monsivais then played out the story of Paco, a Cuban restaurateur who chose to stay after Castro took power only to discover gays were not welcome in the new regime. After time in a Cuban prison, he discovered his own family in Miami rejected him. Monsivais gave us several layers in this uniquely Cuban story revealing how he found more pain from the rejection by his own family than his persecution by the communists. Monsivais filled his storytelling with a hurt, pathetic feeling that leaked through the comic situations.
Monsivais returned later as a repressed and frustrated teacher of ESL who took on the audience as his students, abusing our inability to learn English. Monsivais played with the language in this piece, rolling English parts of speech around like a piece of Shakespeare, colored by his strong accent. It was particularly funny when he shifted into verbal se*ual advance on one of the “students” in the front row. The result was hilarious even as the audience was drawn into his act.
Finally, Federico, with eternal optimism tempered by experience, returned to describe his lasting romance, how he gained citizenship and why he was determined to make it in the new world. Ramirez retained Federico’s flamboyant Latino style and gay flash but he also allowed a hint of maturity and wisdom to come through, the kind that comes from being beaten down.
He also brought the show to a stirring end by declaring his determination to be an American and making his life work here. In a final powerful final statement, Director Watts brought the four actors out with the U.S. Flag to strains of “…and I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free….” This triumphant moment gave me the same feeling I’ve felt at Independence Day events when this song is sung or played. It provided the button on these uniquely Latino but commonly American stories. These men were strong Americans who came from other countries.
As an aging-Caucasian-Anglo-straight protestant, I can affirm that I do not know what it’s like to be a young, gay Latino man arriving in America for the first time, but after experiencing Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown, I understand that it’s not so different from the life most of us have to live. Life is, after all, about surviving the daily ups and downs and persevering through the strife. It just might be easier to do it in America.
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