Irising Down on the Details

Hosted by

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

As you walk into the Mark Taper Forum for the world premiere musical Los Otros, it looks a bit like an Olvera Street gift shop exploded.

Dangling from the ceiling above the audience is a collection of Mexican folk art and souvenirs. There are ponchos, tissue paper marigolds, 50's era metal chairs, marionettes with sombreros; here are the tchotchkes a tourist might cherish to remember a long ago trip.

This loose assemblage of keepsakes is actually a fitting metaphor for Los Otros, itself. The musical, with a book by Ellen Fitzhugh and music by Michael John LaChiusa, is more like these souvenirs than a real journey.

The evening is basically two solo shows loosely strung together with an all-too-convenient coincidence. The first half of the 90 minutes follows an unnamed Anglo woman - from her childhood in government housing outside of San Diego in the 1950's, to her Pacific Telephone job in Burbank in the 60’s, and finally to a drunken, sexual escapade in North Hollywood in the 70's. The thread that weaves through her story are three chance encounters with Mexican immigrants that come to define her as a woman. The saga is told, or actually sung through, by actress Michele Pawk.

The rest of the evening belongs to the lithe and talented actor Julio Monge. He plays a charismatic, gay Latino - but as he's quick to point out, he's legal. Like the woman's story, the man looks back to sing the story of his life. He begins with a mexican hurricane that drove his mother to search out a safer life in 'El Norte.' He learns English as a stock boy. Then while picking plumbs with braceros during World War II, he discovers a sexuality he can't name, but can't resist. Finally, as time catches up to him, he's an IBM accountant living with his partner of 15 years and engaged in a domestic war bred of too much in too little space.

Doesn't sound like the plot of the classic musical, does it? The verses themselves are really more pedestrian and everyday than lyrical. Sometimes that adds to the charm and accessibility of this chamber musical. Sometimes it just feels awkward. Take this lyric:

Little North Hollywood
All-night outdoor Mexican food stand
God bless You!

You mean - taco stand?

If you're not already a fan of Mr. LaChiusa’s music, the reason to go see the production is Christopher Barreca's set. The Taper's thrust stage is transformed into a sandy desert where the relics of the character's past are buried like archeological treasures. But the real magic resides in the moving flats upstage that open to reveal secret caves and iris down to focus on the shoes of hopeful immigrants. Mr. Barreca manages to change the perspective of the whole theater. He evokes the long horizontal plateaus of a twelve year old boy by revealing nothing more than a long sliver of a back drop. Then in the final scene, he achieves a stunning cinematic expanse that the rest of the musical is still striving for.

Los Otros plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through July 1.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 90 minutes without an intermission

Banner image: Julio Monge in the world premiere musical Los Otros. Photo by Craig Schwartz