Los Angeles Theater Review: MELANCHOLIA (Los Angeles Theatre Center)

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by Tony Frankel on April 6, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


A soldier named Mario returns from Iraq just in time for the 2005 New Year’s celebration with his East Los Angeles family, friends and novia – but he also returns traumatized by war. Fueled by guilt and sorrow, he has nightmares and begins drinking more and more, spinning out of control in a destructive, abusive, downward spiral of depression and anxiety. And that is the entire story of Melancholia, now receiving a triumphant return to LATC (it played in 2007, after which it appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival).

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Melancholia at Los Angeles Theatre CenterThere is no credited playwright; the unconventional, time-shifting script was developed and written collectively by the Latino Theater Lab, according to press notes, “through a process of research, improvisation, and the exploration of new theatrical expressions.” The story is generic, the characters are archetypes, the reveal of Mario’s story in Iraq is unconvincing, and acting vacillates from authentic to forced. Why, then, is this one of the most thrilling shows now on in Los Angeles? The approach. Reminiscent of Joseph Chaikin’s collaborative, experimental theater workshops with The Open Theater in the 1960s, Melancholia uses music, dance, highly theatricalized movement, and fragmented storytelling as a way of shedding light on war’s effect at home (also developed through improvisation, Megan Terry’s protest play Viet Rock (1966), which denunciated American involvement in the Vietnam War, equally comes to mind).

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Melancholia at Los Angeles Theatre CenterThe most ingenious idea is to have three actors playing different aspects of Mario (Sam Golzari, Xavi Moreno, Ramiro Segovia). The 15-member ensemble gamely switches roles (soldiers, family, spirits, et al) as Mario’s life flashes from past to present and back. Quite confusing – but nonetheless effective in this environment – is the creation of the Shakespeare-quoting Tar (Fidel Gomez) and his immature/whiny sidekick Skittles (Alexis de la Rocha); unfortunately, we have no idea who these characters represent – are they Hermes-like psychopomps escorting Mario to the afterlife? A devil and his imp? Composites of people he has known? Were it not for press notes, I would never have guessed they are “imaginary friends” born of Mario’s delusions.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Melancholia at Los Angeles Theatre CenterEntertaining and dramatic scenes of family life helped to balance the experimental goings on: Stakes are raised when Mario drunkenly interrupts the graduation ceremony of his sister, Christine (Iliana Carter-Ramirez); Mario’s anger gets the best of him as he hurls homophobic rhetoric at his cousin Rudy (Aaron Garcia); and a great comic character is created in the homecoming scene when Cousin Auggie (Brenda Banda) repeatedly sneers: “Is she kidding?” Even though the production qualifies as a theatrical thrill-ride, it could have been more provocative à la Brecht’s Theatre of Change. When Mario’s father Frank (Geoff Rivas) badmouths Dick Cheney to mom Lydia (Lucy Rodriguez), the audience was clearly titillated and electrified, but these moments are far too rare for this to be agitprop; the stylized proceedings trumped the inflammatory subject matter. I wish the end result was an incendiary condemnation of war seen through the prism of a Mexican-American family; that may have been Latino Lab’s intention, and it is possible the play was more impactful at the height of the Iraq war.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Melancholia at Los Angeles Theatre CenterThe jolt that does occur from this highly impressive outing is due in large part to the staging of José Luis Valenzuela. The director’s use of space is consistently imaginative and his blocking seamlessly blends with Randé Dorn’s choreography. Glorious theatrical flourishes infiltrate every scene: actors are in white face; Death (Jasmine Orpilla) sings operatically; a scene is replayed utilizing a cinematic, sped-up, time-bending contrivance; and there are even a few nods to Luis Valdez’ El Teatro Campesino. The evening can be summed up as a theatrical collage in which Butoh Theatre collides with Day of the Dead. This is hands-down some of the most electrifying and rousing direction of our time.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Melancholia at Los Angeles Theatre CenterThe show takes place in LATC’s downstairs Gallery, normally reserved for art displays and receptions. While the chairs are ruthlessly implacable, the thrust playing area and close proximity to the actors only heightens the rush. Cameron Mock uses the Gallery’s glass wall and cement room, with its pillars and exposed ceiling, as the base of his simple but ever-changing set. Mock’s highly inventive lighting – including projections, light bulbs and flashlights – filters through dry ice fog; with concrete all around, the scene occasionally resembles what a dirty barrack in the desert might look like. Mexican Gothic wedding dresses, fatigues which look like they had actually been used, quick-change outfits, and more are courtesy of Costume Designer Hilary Parkin. Working unobtrusively in the corner is the guy making the show run like a well-oiled machine: Stage Manager Julian Fernandez.

No doubt through word-of-mouth, Melancholia has been selling well, causing an extension. Strangely enough, the audience was predominantly Latino, yet this show isn’t about Latinos; it’s about war’s effect on people who just happen to be Mexican-American. It should be seen by everyone. The revival was prompted by the statistic that by 2012 it was estimated that soldier and veteran suicide rates had jumped to approximately two per day. Think about that as you are supremely entertained by Valenzuela’s wonderland.

photos by Carol Petersen

The Latino Theater Lab at the Los Angeles Theatre Center
scheduled to end on April 14, 2013
for tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit http://www.thelatc.org

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