Los Angeles Theater Review: THE ROMANCE OF MAGNO RUBIO ([Inside] the Ford)

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by Barnaby Hughes on November 16, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles


Just as the “problem” of immigration continues to be debated by our politicians, so does it continue to be presented in our theaters. Earlier this year, in the springtime, Tom Jacobson’s new play The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) was presented at the Atwater Village Theatre. His complex historical drama, which provided little in the way of judgement or analysis of the immigration “problem”, did much to illuminate questions about race in late-nineteenth century Los Angeles. More recently, Ed Begley Jr.’s musical Cesar and Ruben was briefly revived at Santa Monica College, providing a sympathetic portrait of Cesar Chavez and his struggle on behalf of Latino farm workers in post-war California. Yet, while neither of these narratives is well known today, The Romance of Magno Rubio adds a further chapter to the history of California immigration that is even more obscure.

The Romance of Magno Rubio at [Inside] the Ford – Los Angeles Theater Review by Barnaby HughesLike these two earlier productions, The Romance of Magno Rubio is unashamedly multilingual. Whereas Cesar and Ruben aimed for a mixed approach by providing subtitles that translate the Spanish language songs, The Romance of Magno Rubio opts for something more ambitious. It presents the play on alternate nights in English and Tagalog, much the way Angelina Jolie’s upcoming film In The Land of Blood and Honey was shot in both English and Serbo-Croatian. The only trouble is that the original English version still leaves too much dialogue in Tagalog untranslated, thereby making it difficult for non-Filipino audiences to follow. This is compounded by the fact that language switches are frequent and difficult to detect. A rhyme repeated throughout the play well illustrates this.

Magno Rubio Filipino boy.
Magno Rubio Fili-Pinoy.
Magno Rubio four feet six inches tall.
Magno Rubio dark as a coconut ball.

The Romance of Magno Rubio at [Inside] the Ford – Los Angeles Theater Review by Barnaby HughesEverything is readily understandable in English except “Pinoy,” a term that only English speakers familiar with Filipino culture will likely know. But just the opacity of one single word in a rhyme like this is enough to distract and perplex a significant portion of the audience.

Yet, even if one cannot understand every word spoken in The Romance of Magno Rubio, its subject matter is not difficult to follow. Adapted by Lonnie Carter from a short story by Filipino author Carlos Bulosan, it tells the story of Filipino farm workers in California between the world wars. The title character, Magno Rubio (Jon Jon Briones), is hard-working, naïve, and in love with a lady from Arkansas that he’s never laid eyes on. This aspect of the story is all the more ironic, considering the anti-miscegenation laws existing at the time, The Romance of Magno Rubio at [Inside] the Ford – Los Angeles Theater Review by Barnaby Hugheswhich prohibited Filipino men from marrying white women. Magno enlists the help of his literate fellow worker Nick (Giovanni Ortega) in writing love letters to his dear Clarabelle (Elizabeth Rainey). While those close to Magno see clearly that he is being duped and defrauded of his hard-earned wages, they can also see that Magno’s love for Clarabelle gives him hope and solace in the midst of poverty and drudgery.

The Romance of Magno Rubio is less about the story, however, than the performance of it – at least to this reviewer. Bristling with energy, members of the cast taunt each other, engage in both verbal and physical combats, bare their souls, and celebrate the genius of the Filipino people. On the few occasions when the script flowers into song, cast members display magnificent voices and beautiful harmonies. Accompanied solely by acoustic guitar, these songs are some of the play’s most poignant and memorable moments. Instead of frequent song, as in a musical, the script waxes poetic, mixing in rhythm and rhyme like a Dr. Seuss book. Although this can have the effect of decreasing the play’s intelligibility, it does make the performance more vibrant and engaging. The Romance of Magno Rubio at [Inside] the Ford – Los Angeles Theater Review by Barnaby HughesNothing compares to the synergy and group dynamic exhibited by this talented cast. These guys have worked hard together and it shows. Jon Jon Briones, despite his small stature, has enormous stage presence and easily carries the show. His portrayal of Magno Rubio is big-hearted and endearing. A story that celebrates the indomitable spirit of the earliest Pinoys in California, The Romance of Magno Rubio reminds us that they are still with us today and in greater numbers than ever before. It is time that our national discussion of the immigration “problem” (or is it also an opportunity?) expanded to include those from across the Pacific Ocean and not just those south of the border.

photos by Hydee Abrahan/Studio 1003

The Romance of Magno Rubio
[Inside] the Ford in Los Angeles
scheduled to end on December 11
for tickets, visit http://www.fordtheatres.org

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