Los Angeles Theater Review: ¡SER! (LATC)

Post image for Los Angeles Theater Review: ¡SER!  (LATC)

by Jason Rohrer on December 1, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


(Front) Karen Anzoategui. Rear L-R) musicians Shaunte Palmer on trombone and keys, Clinton Cameron on drums and percussion, Walter Miranda on piano, bass and percussion, and CAVA on vocals and percussion.The explosion of solo performance pieces in the 1970s and 80s extended the creative lives of fine artists like Lily Tomlin and made stars of social philosophers like Eric Bogosian.  A show along the lines of Bogosian’s Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead avoided the ostentation of memoir to speak its piece through the mouths of others.  But the supernova of self-reporting on social media has inspired a new kind of solo show, the Theater of My Story Matters Because I Am a Person.  It’s a disheartening fact of theatrical life that nowadays one expects an autobiographical show to cross the bounds of simple narcissism at least sometimes.  These shows rarely have anything to excuse them for spilling ordinary, everyday beans about their makers; offering a bromide is a fairly insulting act, a breach of cultural ethics.  When a stranger inflicts her life story on you from a plane seat, you long for a parachute unless the story is compelling.  It seems reasonable to expect at least as much when she’s speaking from a stage.

Karen Anzoategui in “¡Ser!” presented by the Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.Happily, in writing ¡Ser! Karen Anzoategui has avoided most of the clichés that plague growing-up-queer solo acts.  She smartly treats her sexuality as a given circumstance that rarely becomes the focus of the narrative, allowing her story to play without obligatory nods to political and experiential chestnuts.  That story, while too thin to be entirely coherent, thematically unified, or even very revelatory, is bolstered by a highly developed plot structure that includes an engaging event every few minutes.  A childhood shuttling between Los Angeles and Buenos Aires, in times of poverty and political turmoil, supplies an array of personality and incident.  Even when they don’t really propel the action, these bits with wise aunts, shaken mothers, and imaginary friends who inhabit soccer balls are almost all entertaining for ninety intermission-free minutes – and using the fall from grace of Argentine player Diego Maradona as a mirror for the protagonist’s waning childhood serves the show well.  Some of this writer’s language, in English and Spanish, is poetry of unrefined streetwise eloquence.  Occasionally though her inattention to detail has her speaking gibberish, as when a lazy syntax error cripples an otherwise beautiful image combining bibles, soccer fields, children, and their parents.

Karen Anzoategui in “¡Ser!” presented by the Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.Ms. Anzoategui is a likable, enthusiastic actor with a large, if incompletely developed, gift for character.  Her body work can be precise, and her vocal talents are especially promising – her James Brown dancing is fine, but her James Brown voice is eerie.  That she has chosen James Brown to represent her charming, abusive father speaks well of this writer’s playful creativity, and of her confidence as a performer.  But telling one’s own story appeals to the worst in an entertainer; it’s easy to drift toward the stuff that’s fun to perform rather than what works for this particular story.  This is why good one-person shows are almost always directed by someone else, whose connection to the material is less germane than his sense of stagecraft.  Ms. Anzoategui has not had that kind of help from Marcos Nàjera, whose indulgent direction dissipates the show’s impact at just about every pass.

Karen Anzoategui in “¡Ser!” presented by the Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.As staged in LATC’s Theater Four, the live Latin band (CAVA, vocals and percussion; Walter Miranda, keyboards, bass, and percussion; Shaunte Palmer, trombone and keyboards; Clinton Cameron, drums and percussion) sits on a balcony above Ms. Anzoategui.  These are serious musicians who do not easily fade into the background.  A mature performer would know better than to share a stage with a band this much more polished, practiced, and professional than herself.  Ms. Anzoategui is done no favors by CAVA’s introduction: coming out of a couple of hot numbers, this singer of mellow power sets the stage for an animated main attraction who seems almost jumpy by comparison.  In fact Ms. Anzoategui sings well, but she and CAVA have few moments when they’re not jarringly at odds.

Karen Anzoategui in “¡Ser!” presented by the Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.This disjunction of energies is reflected in the use of Leah Ramillano’s wonderful set, which by itself adroitly helps the storytelling but which is almost immediately buried by props that appear from every possible space – pockets, the floor, the ceiling.  Ms. Anzoategui’s performance is repeatedly hindered by having to interact with soccer balls gigantic and regulation-size, an enormous taco, a life-sized cut-out of David Hasselhof, a megaphone, a suitcase, a cape, a scarf, a flag, a drinking cup, a fake guitar, a klaxon, and most egregiously a clown nose that kills her timing from start to finish.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more intrusive, the clown nose was joined by a false mustache.  Character bits that should flow effortlessly have a stop-and-start quality for which the stage clutter is a direct cause (intermittent video projections by Mr. Nàjera and Efrain Robles just pile on more extraneous junk).  The actor wanders about the stage, never still, always in a race against objects among which she becomes merely another thing to look at.

Karen Anzoategui in “¡Ser!” presented by the Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.This jejune, all-in direction leaves little for the audience to interpret, while simultaneously not delivering enough in the way of compensatory value.  A nice, scary moment placing a nine year old in the midst of a violent political protest, perfectly well described and acted, is undercut by having the band act as temporary set-dressing.  Less would have been so much more.  But nothing is left to the imagination in this production except why Mr. Nàjera allowed Ms. Anzoategui to hand an APPLAUSE card to an audience member; the production seems actually unaware of the impudence, the gall of making the audience culpable for enthusiasm that should have been inspired by the creative team.  Actually, there’s no mystery – it’s just an undisciplined, very young production by artists who will likely mature beyond this phase once they get back to collaborating with old pros instead of nascent talents.

Karen Anzoategui in “¡Ser!” presented by the Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.photos by Ed Krieger

Latino Theater Company
Los Angeles Theatre Center
scheduled to end on December 8, 2013
for tickets, call (866) 811-4111
or visit http://thelatc.org/

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