Encountering Encuentro

Jose Guerrero and Marialuisa Burgos in "Enrique's Journey," from Su Teatro.

Eight years ago, after the city of Los Angeles awarded a contract to manage Los Angeles Theatre Center to the Latino Theater Company, the Spring Street venue was marketed as "the new LATC." But the "new" was dropped in 2009, judging from the last post on the Facebook page that had been named "The New LATC."

Still, as I lounged in the LATC lobby between shows of the Encuentro festival over the weekend, I began to wonder if the "new" should be revived. That legendary lobby - which was the Grand Central Station of innovative LA theater in the late '80s - has been given a 21st-century makeover, with the addition of some comfortable sofas and handy coffee tables and snazzy lighting. The space now looks like a hip hotel lobby or - when a party is in session, as it was on the opening night of the festival last Thursday -- a nightspot similar to those that have cropped up in the gentrified neighborhood just outside the LATC doors.

Of course the free drink chits that were handed out with at least some of the Encuentro tickets and the free coffee, cappuccino and lattes that were dispensed in the lobby during much of the weekend may have contributed to that impression.

Sometimes LATC still seems to suffer from the previously bleaker reputation of its downtown neighborhood in the '80s. I occasionally encounter Angelenos, even some theater-loving Angelenos, who haven't been back to that area since then, apparently unaware of how much it has changed. There were plenty of unsold seats at the six Encuentro productions I attended over the weekend.

In case any of those Spring Street-shy Westsiders or Valley-istas need more lures to the LATC area, I should mention that theatergoers can now cross the street and buy terrific tacos for $2.50 each at the newest (since August) branch of Guisados, followed by dessert at the acclaimed Uli Gelateria next door.

But the onstage fare, not the offstage food and drink, is what really matters at LATC. I can't report that everything on the Encuentro stages is wonderful, but from now through November 10 there is certainly a lot more to choose from than there has been at LATC in recent years - 15 companies from LA and the rest of the United States (the festival also includes two productions by local companies elsewhere in LA.)

Almost all of the material is Latino-oriented. But that common theme is expressed in a wide variety of different styles, about widely disparate subjects.

And isn't it about time that LA got a concentrated dose of Latino theater? According to the Census Bureau, LA County's population was 48 percent Latino in 2013. But I would guess that the proportion of LA's professional theater offerings that deal with Latino characters or themes is much closer to 4.8 percent. Any discussion of how to grow LA theater audiences should consider this factor.

This imbalance appears to operate more or less on all levels of LA theater - large, midsize, small - although the fact that the Latino Theater Company itself operates in LATC's three midsize spaces might make the proportion of Latino-oriented productions in LA theater's midsize sphere just a little higher than it is in the larger and smaller arenas.

Evelina Fernandez and Sal Lopez in "Premeditation." Photo: Ed Krieger

Of the six Encuentro productions I saw over the weekend, by far the most entertaining is the entry from the host, Latino Theater Company's "Premeditation." I wrote about it during its first run in this same space last April 29, pointing out that its noir-flavored story of contemporary middle-aged marital discord is "a delirious farce," not the earnest psychodrama that the subject might suggest.

I welcomed the chance to see it again, and I left the theater marveling over the precision of Jose Luis Valenzuela's direction, the award-worthy design components, and the vitality of each of the four performances, including that of playwright Evelina Fernandez..

"Premeditation" is very LA-oriented, but it doesn't look at the East Side, the media's favorite habitat for Latinos in LA. One character is a professor (as is Valenzuela) at UCLA, and much of the action takes place at "the Shangri-La Hotel" - the one in Santa Monica?

Another Encuentro production, Emilio Williams' "Your Problem With Men," from Teatro Luna in Chicago, also attempts to ignite comic voltage on the subject of female/male relationships - in the same downstairs LATC space. According to the program, it too is set in LA, although that designation feels as if it were tacked on for the LA run. A brief reference to Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood betrays the play's real roots.

Williams and director Alexandra Meda are examining their subject from a younger generation's perspective, with a dash of meta-theatricality. As in "Premeditation," a lot of attention is devoted to design and movement. But the results aren't nearly as propulsive or as polished as those of "Premeditation." Centered on the romantic woes of a young and very neurotic woman, "Your Problem with Men" is shorter than "Premeditation" but seems longer.

Encuentro is hardly all comedy, all the time. Of the more "serious" productions I saw, the best is "Juárez: A Documentary Mythology," from Theater Mitu in New York. It's a non-fiction piece, based on interviews in one particular city, somewhat in the spirit of Tectonic Theater Project's "Laramie" projects and the Civilians' "This Beautiful City" (which was about the evangelical movement in Colorado Springs, seen at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2008.)

juarez-ds.jpgUnlike those other shows, however, the genesis of this one has a more personal history - Mitu artistic director Rubén Polendo was raised in Juárez, the one-time "murder capital of the world," across the Rio Grande from El Paso. He inserts fond memories and scratchy home movies from his youth, amid the more recent material about the violence in his home town and the economic reasons for it.

Yet apart from his personal narration, the storytelling is somewhat less personal than in those other shows. In the script's stage directions, Polendo says the actors the actors attempt to "transmit" and "witness" the material instead of embodying or "emoting" it. The design is fluid, projection-oriented and often ingeniously theatrical instead of representational. Of course, much of the material is grim, but the script ends with a ray of hope.

Another fact-based drama with a Rio Grande component is "Enrique's Journey," from Su Teatro in Denver. If the title sounds familiar, it's probably because reporter Sonia Nazario and photographer Don Bartletti originally told the story of a young Honduran man's repeated attempts to cross the U.S. border to join his long-absent mother in the Los Angeles Times, in 2002. Both of the journalists won Pulitzers for their work.

Anthony J. Garcia's stage adaptation is especially timely in the wake of the recent wave of immigration from Honduras and its neighbors. A lot of material had to be condensed, and all of the actors except Jose Guerrero's Enrique play more than one role, but the narrative is clear, if not exactly concise. For those who don't remember the original story, the most surprising and provocative element is the ending, which isn't quite as happy-ever-after as you might be expecting.

I don't recommend the other two Encuentro shows I saw. Coincidentally, they're both set in the early '50s. Karen Zacarias' "Mariela in the Desert," from Aurora Theatre in Georgia, is a listless drama about an artistic couple - long past their glory days - who are more or less decaying in a remote home in northern Mexico. Javier Antonio Gonzalez' "Zoetrope: Part 1," from Caborca Theatre in New York, is about a Puerto Rican couple who are driven apart when he goes to New York and she stays behind. Major turns in the "Zoetrope" narrative are strangely unexplained or unmotivated, and the 21st-century Wooster Group-influenced technique is a mismatched veneer when applied to the text's use of early '50s realism.

The productions I saw in Encuentro handle the English/Spanish bilingual question in different ways. "Premeditation" is virtually all-English. But when a production or a particular performance is primarily in Spanish, supertitles insure accessibility for English-only readers.

The festival continues through November 10, with four additional productions opening at LATC at the end of October. Meanwhile, a Latino-cast "Julius Caesar" at Casa 0101, playing through November 16, is also part of Encuentro.

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