A Working Theater and Karen Anzoategui: Two to Watch on L.A. Stages

Karen Anzoategui fixates on soccer in her solo show, ¡Ser!.
Karen Anzoategui fixates on soccer in her solo show, ¡Ser!.

Pay attention to a company called a Working Theater (aWT). It's barely a year old, having launched in the 2013 Hollywood Fringe with Lisa Ebersole's Baby. Next, the company went site-specific with an original play put on in a downtown warehouse last weekend, and last weekend only. No matter, pay attention. It's not going away — I hope.

It's not that aWT is doing something that hasn't been done before. Site-specific fare has been standard operating procedure for years, from Hieronymous BANG's 2003 I'm Going to Kill the President (audiences were texted/emailed the assembly point, from which they were led to the production's secret location) to a number of shows by Chalk Rep. Nor is the gratuitous/mocking culminating bloodbath in Dantalian's Great and Tragical and Truthful Epic of Man's Vanity and Oh-So-Gruesome Demise (Volume 5), written by company artistic director Matt Soson, anything that hasn't been done over at Zombie Joe's Underground.

Yet the event contained a visceral power, which worked seamlessly in conjunction with the intelligence of Jessica Salans' staging and design choices (Sohail Najafi, lights; Michael Cooper, sound; Marika Stephens, set), further enhanced by the excellent performances. The net result was that of being in, well, good company — people who know exactly what they're doing.

Soson's play focused on a script writer named Pete (Goerge Alvarez) with, shall we say, anger-management issues. He's locked in the attic of some unspecified suburban home with a new Russian wife (Stephanie Estes), whom Pete hoisted from New York City to live with him. She now has little to do but down shots of vodka and try to placate his hostile teenage niece (Chloe Tucker), who has been living with them since her parents were killed.

For his part, Pete acts out in pathological, violent rages against both women, before resuming his role as put-upon-by-life author.

Pete's opus, which he imagines as a puppet show, concerns a gay male couple (Joe Coffey and Tory Smith) in Rome. One is trying to solve the mystery of a serial killer. That drama was played out on a separate locale, designed with strategic sparsity of detail. The set design's stand-alone door represented a gateway from one world to the next.

The entire presentation echoed productions I've seen in Poland, performed on what resembles a soundstage so that the effect is quintessentially theatrical while being cinematic in the same moment.

I recall once being with college kids watching horror flicks while they cheered at each escalating deed of somebody being bludgeoned or otherwise mutilated; this production had the same winking spirit of defiance against all codes of civility. Yet as adolescent as that motive may be, a Working Stage combines all that with a multitiered play and smart, efficient stagecraft, so that it commands respect.

Latino Theater Company pulls out the stops for Karen Anzoategui's solo performance ¡Ser!, about a queer Latina who flees Huntington Park with her mom and brothers for a new life in Buenos Aires, only to return to California — Moreno Valley — then back to Argentina, until resettling, with some bittersweetness, in California, this time L.A.'s Boyle Heights.

Anzoategui's narration and strong impersonations come both accompanied by and interspersed with lively and lovely calypsos, marimbas and blues from the band CAVA and Walter Miranda, in collaboration with Louie Pérez of Los Lobos.

The entire spectacle is a carnival (designed by Leah Ramillano in circus colors), where objects come flying in from the sky.

The main such object is a giant soccer ball — the centerpiece of Anzoategui's passion — made all the more emphatic by her inability not only to play professionally but even to attend the male-dominated games.

Under Marcos Najera's direction, Anzoategui's performance avoids every pitfall of bitterness and stridency, while being fully spirited throughout. She rushes from scene to scene with barely a moment to reflect on the poignancy of a prior scene — including, for example, her fascination with Argentina's "disappeared" political figures, that nation's legacy of dictatorship, and the economic collapse that savaged the place in the 1990s.

It's a child's-eye view of the experience of seeking a place to belong. Never maudlin, ever cheerful, the production is a moving clown show about anguish.


¡SER! | Written and performed by Karen Anzoategui | Latino Theater Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 8 |

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Los Angeles Theatre Center

514 S. Spring St.
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