Y Tu Película También

'Hollywood Shuffle' in shades of brown; Sanity's loss is theater's gain

Well, just when I had promised myself I would never use the phrase "sitcom humor" in a review again, the Mixed Blood Theatre produces a play that explicitly mocks the conventions of the situation comedy, to the point of having an "applause/silence" sign onstage. In fact, canned laughter periodically pours out of the theater's sound system, usually, as is the case with television comedies, to sweeten jokes that aren't good enough to extract laughter from the live studio audience.

I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges is the annual bilingual play from the Mixed Blood, which alternates between performances in English one night and Spanish the next. I cannot say how this script, by Luis Valdéz, works in Spanish. It may be better, for all I know: This is a comedy, and humor is famously hard to translate. The play offers an intriguing premise, telling of a late-middle-aged Los Angeles couple (played by Raúl Ramos, who also directed the production; and the singly named Vetza) who have made a comfortable career for themselves playing Mexican maids and field hands in Hollywood films. In fact, Ramos's character, Buddy, refers to himself with considerable pride as the "Silent Bit King."

What can brown do for you? A Chicano family (and friend) in Mixed Blood's 'I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges'
Mixed Blood Theatre
What can brown do for you? A Chicano family (and friend) in Mixed Blood's 'I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges'

While Ramos is clearly too young for the character he plays--his dark hair seems to have been spray-painted gray--he is nonetheless great fun to watch onstage. As an actor, he has a hyperactive, jocular charm; he's seemingly unable to stop jogging in place. So, too, he cannot sit still for more than a moment before leaping to his feet to describe a misconceived notion for a feature film, such as a version of Star Wars in which a sombrero-shaped spacecraft chases low-riding freedom fighters. His is the most engaging character in the play, swigging Miller Lites, offering up an endless array of off-color suggestions to his giggling wife, and throwing occasional, boyish temper tantrums.

Unfortunately, he is not the show's main character. That role instead goes to the source of most of Buddy's tantrums: his son Sonny, a Harvard Law School dropout who has returned to Los Angeles, Asian girlfriend in tow, to pursue a career as a movie star. As played by René Millán, Sonny alternates between panic attacks, cackling laughter, and out-and-out madness. As Sonny's acting career stalls, his choices of roles limited to a variety of slump-shouldered, bandana-wearing gangbangers, his madness comes to dominate the play: He refuses to break character as a murderous thug. He stares gloomily out from under his red bandana, brandishing a prop gun and spitting out thickly accented racial epithets at his kimono-clad girlfriend (played by Ann Kim). Specifically, he demands to know if she thinks of him as a potential rapist. His delusion is an interesting one, but the premise is overtaxed. Sonny seems to move through every possible crisis of identity, confounded by his parents' long career as Mexican stereotypes, his own nebulous Chicano identity, and his frustrated artistic ambitions.

Sonny's lunacy--which takes the form of long monologues, as lunacy often does in plays--gives playwright Valdéz a forum for venting his frustrations at the fact that Mexican Americans are either stereotyped or invisible in this country's popular culture. And he's not alone in his frustration: The playwright's satire recalls movies about African American stereotyping like Hollywood Shuffle and Bamboozled. But perhaps I can be forgiven for wishing that the story of Buddy, the Silent Bit King, had not been completely abandoned in favor of the monologues of his wealthy, conflicted, profoundly spoiled son. The story of a Silent Bit King is the sort of distinctive Chicano role that is too rarely seen in popular culture--which is Valdéz's point. Ah, irony.

 

In the meanwhile, writer/performer John O'Donoghue brings a very different sort of madness to the stage at the Center for Independent Artists. O'Donoghue has revived his one-man show, Wildlife, previously seen at the Fringe Festival and at the Soap Factory, this time under the auspices of Flaneur Productions. This is a fairly new group of like-minded theater and fine artists who, according to their press, "strive to create a powerful theatre that exists in the space between idea, word, image and gesture."

Of course, such a mission, if pursued literally, would be nonsensical: A performance that actually took place in such a metaphoric space would last a millisecond and consist of absolutely nothing (how long, after all, is the space between idea and word?). But arty groups have a right to make nonsensical, arty statements, and while O'Donoghue might spend a fair amount of time frozen onstage in Wildlife, it is not because he is lost in a moment of aesthetic meditation. Instead, it is because his character, a shabby street poet, has managed to retain just enough of his sanity to know when he has lost control of his behavior, if not enough to prevent himself from doing so.

O'Donoghue's performance--which sees him detouring from anything that might resemble a point, then doubling back on himself--is a dazzling one. His monologues tell of a man lost somewhere on the fringes, making infrequent, tragically unsuccessful gestures toward normalcy. It is this morbid self-awareness, played on a stage cluttered with filthy clothes, that brings the play dangerously close to heartbreaking. In one scene, O'Donoghue, attempting to romance a young woman he's met in the park, turns to an unseen friend and betrays his own terror at his unpredictable behavior. "How do I look?" he asks. "How am I acting?"

 
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