Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
It is inspired by the true story of a 1942 murder and the zoot-suited Chicano kids who were railroaded for it. The first act ends with the travesty of a trial held for Henry Reyna and his friends. The prosecutor's jury argument frames the case not as one where the facts of the crime actually matter, but the jury's chance to take this country back from the Mexican degenerates and the crime wave they're causing. The parallels wouldn't be more obvious if he actually said, "bad hombres,"and the audience on press night actually hissed. And when the defense attorney rightly calls out the prosecutor for pursuing totalitarian injustice, the audience cheered. But, most revealing, is that the play casts the audience as the jury itself, and when an actor stood in the audience to announce that we find the defendants guilty, someone shouted, "No, we don't!" This Zoot Suit revival is Los Angeles theatre celebrating the first Chicano play to ever appear in a mainstage production, asserting to the rest of the country that "this is what Los Angeles theatre is." But it is also Los Angeles proclaiming to the rest of the country that we don't stand for injustice, racism and fear. It shouts, "This is what Los Angeles is."
Luis Valdez's bilingual play, with a mostly Latino cast telling the tale of injustice against a group of Mexican Americans, and the diverse group of Angelenos who banded together to right the wrong, is downright defiant. And the revival is so perfectly timed, the production doesn't really have to be any more than adequate to be effective. Happily, it's much better than that.
At the center of it all is Matias Ponce as Henrybut he's not the lead. Henry is all about how he lets things affect him. Will he lead the fight when his 38th Street buddies are threatened by the Downey gang? What does he do when facing a good cop /racist cop combination? Will he accept the offer of help from an unknown attorney? And through all of these decisions, Henry gets advice from the real lead of the play, El Pachuco, portrayed by Demian Bichir. El Pachuco is in Henry's mindthe ideal of Mexican-American gang culture. Sharply attired, moving with flair, streetwise and cynical, he is more than just the devil on Henry's shoulder; he has the power to break the fourth wall, communicate directly with us, and change the very action on the stage. Bichir doesn't overplay his larger-than-life character, pulling us in with an unforced charisma and a subtle delivery ... in an unbelievably flashy zoot suit.
There's good work from the supporting cast as well. Sometimes they seem to have trouble with the slang of the 1940s, but, mostly, they give honest performances. Jeanine Mason, in particular, is a standout as Henry's girlfriend, Della. We learn the true facts of Henry's actions on the night of the murder through Della, when she's testifying at Henry's trial. Her narration turns into an engrossing flashback as the scene changes to show us what happened, and Mason hits the perfect balance between being in the moment and testifying to it after the fact, with the horror of knowing how it all ended.
As you might expect, Ann Closs-Farley's costumes (with an assist from a local zoot suit shop, whichin full circleis named after El Pachuco, thanks to the initial production of the show) are eye-catching. Points also to Christopher Acebo, whose set design includes the judge's bench (among other things) being made from stacks of newspapersto emphasize how much the press was responsible for influencing public opinion against the Mexican-American gangsters.
The sound isn't ideal, and it is sometimes hard to make out what people are saying (and if you don't understand Spanish, you may miss a bit of dialogue here and there). But this doesn't really matter. This Zoot Suit revival isn't about walking out having fully comprehended every word; it's about being fully transported to a different time in L.A. and being reminded that everything that is happening now has already happened before, and we can emerge triumphant.
Zoot Suit runs at the Mark Taper Forum through March 26, 2017. For tickets and information, visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
Center Theatre Group - Michael Ritchie Artistic Director, Stephen D. Rountree Managing Director, Douglas C Baker Producing Director, Gordon Davidson Founding Artistic Director - presents Zoot Suit. Presented in association with El Teatro Campesino. Written and Directed by Luis Valdez. Choreography Maria Torres; Songs Composed by Lalo Guerrero; Music Director Daniel Valdez; Associate Director Kinan Valdez; Scenic Design Christopher Acebo; Costume Director Ann Closs-Farley; Lighting Design Pablo Santiago; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Projection Design David Murakami; Wigs by Jessica Mills; Fight Director Steve Rankin; Casting Rosalinda Morales, Pauline O'con, CSA, Candido Cornejo, Jr. CSA; Associate Artistic Director Neel Keller; Production Stage Manager David S. Franklin; Executive Producer El Teatro Campesino Phillip Esparza.