Musings on Melancholia
By Ramona Pilar Gonzales
I participated in the Los Angeles Theatre Center Young Conservatory in the early 90s. I spent the summer before my freshman year in high school running around the Los Angeles Theater Center, from the basement bathrooms, to the 4th floor costume shop. I performed on the basement theater stage, as a masked devil. I had a sloppy, embarrassing kiss on the stairwell that has since been removed from the front lobby. That building and the many rooms of magic it houses has had a fundamental effect on the fact that I have an artistic life. I feel a sense of ownership of that theater whether or not I have a right to. It is because of this sense of ownership, that I have a certain set of expectations when I see a production at LATC. I expect to feel something more than bewilderment as to why an Artistic Director chose THAT for the season. I expect to be considered as part of the target audience. More than any other theater west of the LA River, I expect to connect with the productions at LATC. The wonderful team behind Melancholia do exactly that.
Melancholia tells the story of three Marios – the same character played by three different actors – who survive a tour in Iraq only to come home haunted, traumatized and blindly barreling toward self destruction. This story of a young man choosing the armed forces as a way to pay for college and better himself is a universal narrative made all the better by its specificity to Los Angeles. The story stretches beyond the traditional immigrant narrative – travelling to El Norte for a better life and the cross cultural chaos that ensues – and examines the life of a bilingual family who doesn’t have to contend with La Migra, but who experience encumbered social mobility, and who are targeted by a war industry that has been one of the country’s largest since the 1940s.
An ensemble piece created and developed by members of the Latino Theater Lab, Melancholia is staged not in Theater 4 (its original production location) but in the basement art gallery. This lends to the phantasmagoric tone of the piece. The seating is U-shaped and the action is staged everywhere there is floor space, everywhere an eye can catch a shadow: the center of the U, the four corners, the theater lobby hallway, which is transformed into a fragmented, window-paned wedding aisle for La Muerte. All of this amplifies the fragmented, multiple perspective theme of the play.
The multicasting (Sam Golzari, Xavi Moreno and Ramiro Segovia all play Mario) made the story difficult to follow at first. Because it is a piece rife with symbolism, I assumed there was a reason each actor was playing the role of Mario at that specific time, even though I didn’t know what it was. After digesting the play, a bit, it didn’t matter whether or not there was a “why” to “when” each actor took up Mario’s cross; it illustrated his disconnected and disjointed reality.
One of the things that I get to do, living in Los Angeles, is see my friends perform. I say that I “get to” because it really is a privilege. Los Angeles is where droves of people come to “make their dreams come true.” It’s the big gamble, the do-or-die crap shoot, where destiny resides. Yet, for those of us who are from here, who live here, this our hometown. And in our hometown the entire world is competing for a spot on a stage that we can see from our backyards. Or front yards. So when I see my friends perform/ do their art/ pursue their craft/ get ‘er done, it moves me to pride.
I met Xavi Moreno when he was still in high school, taking writing classes at Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights. He and Alexis de la Rocha (who is my current roommate) both performed in one of the first pieces I ever wrote, a handful of years ago. They have always been generous performers – open, present and completely giving themselves over to the audience. In this show I can see how that energy has become powerful. Xavi was electric and tragic as Mario vacillating between bombastic outrage and an even more terrifying, silent thousand-yard-stare. Alexis’s Skittles takes on the Herculean task of trying to infuse Mario with hope. She is a stubbornly optimistic presence in a pool of morose despair.
Each member of the ensemble had a moment to shine. Their individual work was just as strong as their group work, emblematic of strong direction and straight up trust.
With a play that begins with Hamlet’s suicide soliloquy, one doesn’t necessarily expect a break into song and dance. The 40s inspired swing number was a welcome breath of levity at just the right moment. However, I wonder if references to pachuco culture will always be an automatic callback to Luis Valdez and Zoot Suit. I wonder if it’s possible to truly embody whatever that symbolism is supposed to evoke, as the only references to that time and place maybe be fading family albums. I saw a pachuco stance, and a break out into swing dancing, and while fun, could only think of Zoot Suit. Since the zoot suit is such a visual cue, this contemplation took me out of the moment temporarily. It may just be my limitation as a viewer.
Stylistically it was a wonderful break from a standard proscenium presentation. The deconstructed opera house seating might prove challenging to those who feel a sense of lack if they’re not able to visually take in everything that’s happening as it’s happening. If seated at the bottom section of the U, you see the performances, audience members seated on either side, and the long dark hallway that leads into the oubliette of a troubled soldier’s psyche. If you’re sitting on either side, you’re not only watching the play, you’re watching each other.
The production envelopes the audience as soon as the usher handed over the program. The sound work by John Zalewski and Edwin Peraza worked wonderfully with the granite surfaces of the gallery space. The intro music was simultaneously calming and unnerving, unsettling and supportive; perfect for the limbo-esque vibe of the gallery. Added to the immersive set and lighting, I wasn’t just watching a play, I was feeling it. And this with only two actors (Fidel Gomez as Tar and Alexis de la Rocha’s Skittles) on stage.
And then, there is La Muerte. During the days of the Aztecs, as Mictecacihuatl, she was the protectress of souls in the underworld. As Posada’s La Calavera Catrina, she was a reminder to wealthy and entitled that, at the end of it all, everyone returns to their bones. As La Muerte (or Death, as she’s credited in the program), she is a fundamental, if peripheral character in this piece – always present, slow-moving and operatic (played with foreboding intensity by Jasmine Orpilla). Melancholia is as much an exploration of the psychological effects of war on soldiers, as it is a meditation on our contemporary relationship to death. Death has, at one time, been personified in all tribes in cultures in some way, shape or form. The current disconnect from even a folkloric relationship to death shows a compounded a fear of mortality. Discussing death or even the fear of death is tantamount to conjuring it as far as some people are concerned. What with the rise of vampire, zombie and werewolf stories in recent history, it is fitting that Melancholia resurrects the La Muerte archetype, as society as a whole is trying to work out it’s anxiety about mortality and a secular answer to the afterlife.
This is what theater should be. It takes subjects as difficult and overwhelming as mental illness, the consequences of war, addiction and subsequent suicide, and lifts it from philosophical musings into a living breathing art piece. It may sound terribly quaint to put it that way, but ultimately one of the amazing things about theater is that it can help unpack complicated, complex experiences and act as a prism – to look at things in different perspectives to try to figure it out, or like a microscope, to fully examine one aspect of a much larger, many tiered situation. When done well, it anticipates and responds to the needs of an audience, connecting with them, inspiring them. It understands that the audience is also a part of the story.
* * *
By The Latino Theater Lab
Directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela
EXTENDED through April 14, 2013
Performances: Thursday, Friday, Saturday: 8:00pm, Sunday 3:00pm
Tickets: (866) 811-4111 or visit http://www.thelatc.org