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As chance would have it, John Leguizamo was everywhere I turned this past Sunday: in nine different guises on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, in several more on a Tony Awards show excerpt from Freak, in drag on a late-night cable broadcast of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, and on the title page of the program for Source Theatre’s Mambo Mouth.
Leguizamo’s not physically onstage at Source, but he’s there in spirit, channeled by a fellow named Peter Mendez, who’s become one of the more reliable performers to ply his trade on D.C.’s small stages of late. Whether Mendez is playing in support (his smarmy waiter in Olney Theatre’s otherwise execrable After Play) or as part of a riveting ensemble (his quaking prosthesis-carver in American Century Theater’s splendid Moby Dick Rehearsed), he invariably gives the sort of out-there, furiously engaging performance from which it is hard to tear your eyes.
In Mambo Mouth, there’s no need to try, because he’s the whole showa loose-limbed quick-change artist who flits from one to another of the seven Latino character portraits the young Leguizamo created a few years ago to prove there was more to his act than standup comedy. There’s no real through-line to the evening, except that the characters all share a bravado you’d have to call false if it didn’t fit like a second skin.
There’s the alcoholic pugilist who wears an Incan headdress and urges his young son to stop crying and be more like Spiderman; the streetwalker who carries an 8-inch knife in her purse and clings to the notion that Prince Charming will someday pass her corner; the cable talk-show host who unselfconsciously reads letters on the air from “all the women who want to be loved by me around the world”; and the teenage boy who’s bouncing off walls from amphetamines and the excitement of his sexual initiation at the hands of a grotesquely obese prostitute. They’re joined by a Mexican who claims to be Swedish, Irish, and Israeli in quick succession when caught in an INS sting; an “incarceratized” con in handcuffs whose phone calls from the clink fall on deaf ears; and last, but certainly not least, by a self-styled “crossover king” who calls himself “Latino-san” and urges his Hispanic clients to abandon the mannerisms and habits of thought that make them downwardly mobile in American society and reinvent themselves as upwardly mobile Japanese immigrants.
While Mendez doesn’t play any of these characters strictly for laughs, each of them isin his or her singularly desperate wayfunny. And the cumulative effect of seeing them in succession onstage at Source is to suggest what a loss it is for audiences that such vibrant, life-giving characters are so often ghettoized and relegated to Latino theaters. I confess that my own initial reaction, on noting that the evening was directed by Abel Lopez, who is the associate producing director of GALA Hispanic Theater, was to wonder why Mambo Mouth wasn’t playing there. But by the third vignette, the reason is clear: Leguizamo’s purpose in writing the show was to deepen and flesh out stereotypes until they assume the shape of real life, and the audience at GALA would recognize the reality too quickly.
It’s hard to say where Mendez’s playing ends and Lopez’s staging begins, but whichever of them is responsible for the photos the Latino-san character uses in his lecture needs to do some reshooting ASAP. Otherwise, the evening is spare, hilarious, and every bit as touching as it is funny. It is being performed as part of Source’s off-hours Aftershocks series, meaning the most popular shows will be Friday and Saturday at 11 p.m., but don’t hesitate on that account. It’s a safe bet that no one’s going to have any trouble staying awake.
The primary impulse behind Keegan Theatre’s Hamlet appears to have been the desire of company founder Mark Rhea to play the title rolea desire that must have been subjected to a lot of second-guessing when the Kennedy Center announced it would open a mounting by London’s Royal Shakespeare Company almost simultaneously.
Fortunately, Rhea proves a vigorously plausible, if not a great, Dane. His troubled prince initially comes across as a real mensch, as soft and cuddly as his velvety tunic. But as the case against his usurping uncle becomes clearer in the course of the evening, Rhea develops a persuasively stiff spinand a taste for revenge. Several members of the supporting castwhich ranges from adequate to quite strongare in his league. Best among them are Eric Lucas, playing a good-hearted Laertes whose rages after his father’s death are genuinely alarming, and Sheri S. Herren, whose cross-gendered casting as Horatio turns out to be a smart move rather than a mere stunt. Also fine are Richard Mancini’s slow-witted but essentially civilized Polonius (you can see where Laertes got his decency) and Jenifer Deal’s clueless Gertrude.
The evening is less sure-footed, however, in its staging, which is credited jointly to Andrew Thayer and to Lucas. The production is reasonably efficient about moving people around and creating stage pictures, but it feels consciously shaped only for about a third of its length. There are a few interesting ideasHamlet ripping pages out of the book he’s reading to convince the royal household he’s mad, Ophelia walking in on him midway through “To be or not to be” and standing stupefied at what appears to be his declaration of a death wish. But there are also some clinkers. The decision to place the intermission right before the mousetrap scene, for instance, sounds fine in theory. But having Hamlet deliver his instructions to the players with the house lights still up and patrons still settling into seats essentially throws away one of the evening’s nicer speeches.
Rhea’s delivery being the evening’s chief strong point, a purist might also wish the directors had trusted the music of the Bard’s words more, rather than resorting to musical underscoring in all of Hamlet’s soliloquies. Utilizing movie-style trickery to up the emotional ante is hardly necessary in an auditorium with only 74 seats, none of them more than four rows from the action. Still, there are compensating pleasures, not the least of which is a final sword fight that, in such close quarters, proves more than a little unnerving.
Rose Caruso’s “spiritual comedy” Shamanism in New Jersey is a mess, but a reasonably interesting mess in Smallbeer Theatre’s somewhat overproduced world premiere. The story revolves around Alona, a young woman of mixed parentage (Jersey-accented Mom frequents shopping malls; Native American Dad frequents powwows) who raises herbs for healing but is otherwise just like anyone else in the suburban sprawl around Bloomfield.
Except, that is, for her visions. Alona has lately been plagued (or blessed, depending on one’s point of view) by spectral images of various types. The most recent ones have been violent and seemed to concern a cousin who was brutally attacked on the way to work in Manhattan. Mom’s reaction is to take Alona’s temperature and urge bed rest. Dad, who’s popped in from Oklahoma for the first time in years, urges Alona to get in psychic touch with her long-dead grandmother. Meanwhile, brand-new boyfriend Nick can’t decide whether to be supportive or just flee.
Apart from a tendency to mock New Age spiritualism while promoting the Native American variety, the evening is an inoffensive contrivance. But it’s scattered enough that it never becomes much more than that. Caruso’s writing tends toward kitchen-sink realism (“This is New Jersey; there’s probably people out here buried in plastic bags”) while her subject matter is decidedly ethereala reasonable choice for an author to make, as long as there’s a point to the separation of style and substance. But with so many scenes ending in lines like “Hey Celeste, we’ll have the hummus later,” it seems doubtful that the author is playing very purposefully with language.
Matters aren’t helped by the fact that while the play means to be about the collision of opposing cultures, Smallbeer’s staging often seems to be at least as much about a collision of stage forms. Shamanism in New Jersey marks the company’s return to producing after several dark seasons, and its compulsive mixing and matching of devices suggests that a pent-up theatrical imagination has been loosed after waaay too longspecifically, that of artistic director Lynnie Raybuck, who not only staged the show, but also designed the costumes. She’s supervised the creation of a nifty little prologue that uses projected shadow puppets; an ambitious (and mostly well-executed) scenic design that’s essentially a continuous, six-screen slide show; and a complex sound mix that includes Native American chanting, natural sounds, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”
She’s also assembled a cast that hails from a variety of backgroundsnot just Native American and European-American, but also professional and nonprofessionalwhich proves a mixed blessing. The pros are capable, with spunky Tina Frantz and goofily appealing Chad Davis making Alona and Nick a central couple it’s easy to root for, and Brilane Bowman fine as Alona’s put-upon mom. The rest, alas, are either over-the-top (Jennifer Davis-Ford as two wildly different hysterics) or frankly amateurish (Michael Nephew and Mary Arpante Sunbeam as Alona’s dad and a spectral Native American woman). And ultimately, that proves an insuperable handicap for an evening that’s already too diffuse for its own good.CP