Brother Act


Penumbra Theatre Company

Santos Y Santos

Mixed Blood Theater

SINCE JOHN EDGAR Wideman wrote Brothers and Keepers a dozen years back, tales of black brothers separated by class and crime have gained currency; what with the unsound income gaps and insane incarceration rates at the crackbrained endgame of this millenium, it's easy to see why.

So it is with brothers Grant and Monk in Charles Smith's Freefall. Grant (Terry Bellamy), a desk-set police officer, huddles restively in suburban Chicago. He goes on mysterious night rides into the inner city. He bickers with wife Alex (Marvette Knight) over Christmas plans. He mumbles "there's no problem" unconvincingly. Monk (John Bentley), dead-set determined to go straight after serving a nickel in "college" on a burglary charge, forages through alleys "amassing a fortune in aluminum." While Grant and Monk attempt to put their cops-and-robbers history behind them in an anguished family feud, enterprising pusher-man Spoon (Alexander Parker) is an enterprising dealer trying to lure Monk back into a criminal brotherhood. When Grant and Monk meet and struggle to repair their painful, cops-and-robbers history, there are, to put it mildly, bad feelings between them.

In what might be a hallmark of Penumbra productions, the cast deliver direct, riveting performances, inducing lump-throatedness without manipulation. But at the same time, the actors sound as if they're having a devil of a time trying to tame an urban dialect. Marvette Knight seems particularly flummoxed, with an accent at first suburban, then urban, then (do my ears betray me?) Southern. Too, there is a hesitancy in the early scenes, a tentative lag between lines; for a cast as abundantly talented as this one, there is an awful lot of outright line-flubbing going on.

Smith's own ear for dialogue is similarly suspect. Writing in an intense and earnest naturalistic mode, he seems unwilling to stick to his own rules. Condemning the abandonment of the inner city, Spoon riffs on broken Bush campaign promises, then namechecks the Keating Five--less factually inaccurate than contextually incredible. Monk's dexterity with metaphor also smacks of authorial caprice. He talks circus with Alex in one scene, then returns to (and belabors) the topic when they speak a week later. People don't do that. Emotionally potent and quite funny too, Charles Smith might climb to the upper reaches of playwrighting if only his poetic license were temporarily suspended.

There are actually three brothers Santos--Miguel, Fernando and Tomas--in Octavio Solis's engaging Brothers/Keepers story, Santos Y Santos (loosely based on the assassination of a Texas judge). Miguel and Fernando run a successful and civic-minded El Paso law firm. They also run cocaine across the border. This profitable arrangement is threatened by the arrival of straight-arrow youngest brother Tomas (J. Ed Araiza)--a Michael Corleone figure fresh from a disheartening stint with the San Diego District Attorney. While mercurial Fernando (Tim Perez) gambles the firm's fortunes in Vegas, Tomas tries to salvage his family's integrity by tipping off the Feds on their latest shipment. As often happens with self-righteous crusades, everything goes to hell. Drug mule Jesus Camacho is ignited in misdirected retribution and Miguel arrested. America, America, God shed his et cetera et cetera.

Solis's artistic conceits fall under the heading of Promiscuous Poetry. The characters appear to be suffering some heretofore unknown seizures; the lights seem to set it off, dimming first, then spinning and swirling like a discoteque sans sparkling ball. Next thing you know Tomas snaps, and he's spouting off at the mouth in search of the Chicano soul, regurgitating remnants of Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude in frenzied lists and stray fragments. While playwright Federico Garcia Lorca pioneered such excesses in inner-monologue--call it the e-z-serve soliloquy--Solis sometimes sounds more like a second-tier beat poet after a hard night of bennies. Derision aside, though, I rather appreciate the jarring effects and manic pacing of the play's frequent departures from realism; there is nary a dull moment here and that's no common feat. Solis is the rare contemporary playwright who treats the stage as an asset instead of a liability.

Ultimately, Tomas must invert his belief in the sanctity of American justice in defense of family and self (think Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II). He hires demented hitman Casper T. Willis--a fervent ornithologist and borderline child-molester--to influence the judge in Miguel's trial. With his close-cropped hair and cocaine swagger, actor Bruce Bohne's Willis nearly steals the stage; in a bizarre entry into the Facts Stranger than Fiction files, the actual hit man was actor Woody Harrelson's father! Meanwhile, in prison, the scattered seeds of a mixed identity start rattling in Miguel's gourd like a maraca. While his wife Magdalena (Melinda Lopez) guards their cash--an irrevocable ticket into mainstream American society--he fantasizes about their children going gringo: homogenized milk, Scientology, the Beach Boys. All the things brother America keeps in storage for its newcomers, its restless, and its lost. CP

Freefall runs through February 18 at the Penumbra Theatre (224-3180). Santos Y Santos runs through February 11 at Mixed Blood Theater (338-6131).

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