By Octavio Solis
Directed by Juliette Carrillo
Mark Taper Forum, Center Theatre Group
April 2 - May 17, 2009
Onahoua Rodriguez. Photo: Craig Schwartz.
Lydia, is the Center Theatre Group's latest offering to bridge the gap between cultural (with a capital C) Los Angeles and the vibrant Latino culture that surrounds. Set in El Paso, not Los Angeles, and in 1970, not the present, it is a tale, nay a saga, of a Mexican-American family, the Flores, living on the edge of the American dream and the edge of the middle class. That is to say it is like a telenovela, a Spanish soap opera. Exchange Afghanistan or Iraq for Vietnam, update the television theme songs, tweak the clothes a bit, be sure to have pop top beer cans where the key pulls off completely, and the story could be set in the present day.
About 19 years ago Rosa, the mother, was determined to give birth to her first child in the US and persuaded Claudio to slip across the border to be with her. They had big dreams for their first-born son, Rene, who now has finished high school, is doing nothing with his life, and who looks like trouble, sporting long hair and a great six-pack. He brags about going out and beating up homosexuals.
The language of the household is Spanglish. Rosa and the three children, all adolescents now and all born in the US, are more comfortable in English than Claudio, the father, who refuses to try and is stuck in a dead end job as a night fry cook. Ceci, the middle child, spends her life on a mattress on the floor of the living room, having been in a terrible accident just three days before her quinceañera (a young woman's coming-of-age celebration on her 15th birthday), which has left her seriously brain damaged and unable to care for herself in any way.
Onahoua Rodriguez is convincing in her portrayal of the anguish, the incomprehensible utterances, and the physical contortions of someone in such a condition. The irreparably damaged and dependent Ceci is the magnetic center of the family. Misha, the youngest, is the good son. He is bookish, a would be writer, who adores and who cares for his sister, and is tortured by his howling hormones.
Claudio sits facing the TV with his earphones and his beer, asking little, expecting to be waited on, and ready to irrupt at the slightest irritant. Rosa, worn down by the caretaking, has decided to escape to her old job with the county and hire a maid from Mexico. Lydia arrives to take care of the house and her daughter. Rosa has carefully avoided asking Lydia what her legal status is.
Lydia is a teenager herself; she looks about Ceci's age. Her English is remarkably good and she possesses an uncanny efficiency and an ability to know what everybody wants, even the scarred and damaged Ceci. Lydia takes over the household, including dressing Ceci in the clothes she would have worn to her quinceañera, certain, despite the family's objections, that Ceci had communicated that desire to her. At first Lydia is a godsend. She creates order, but then ... well, she takes over the household and chaos ensues. The family fractures along long standing cracks.
Magical realism is present throughout. Not only does Lydia profess to know Ceci's thoughts about a lot of things, almost like a doppelgänger, but Ceci (as she would have been if she were never injured) floats around the stage pouring out her adolescent fantasies and recollections of the accident that has left her so damaged. Throw in la migra (immigration), machismo, homosexuality, abuse, and a soupçon of incest and you get the idea of this three-hour potboiler.
Culture Clash, a local performance troupe, does a far better job whether it is with their use of Spanglish or their portrayal of the struggles faced by Latinos in America. The results are illuminating, yet entertaining, pieces that work for all audiences. Solis has tried to throw in everything but the kitchen sink and Lydia itself sinks under the weight of its multiple themes.
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