A common habit by drama critics is to compare and contrast a new adaptation of an old work with or against that old work, which would seem a reasonable approach. But not in the case of poet-performer-playwright Luis Alfaro. Alfaro’s work, whether the solo autobiographical performance St. Jude, presented last year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, or his 2005 adaptation of Elektra at the Mark Taper Forum (Electricidad) are singularly Alfaro creations rather than amalgams.
Alfaro’s words have a colloquial poeticism, so that you barely notice the poetry, until it seeps out ever so subtly. You barely notice how impassioned his world view is, until, amidst glib quips about LACMA, MOCA and former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, you realize that you’ve haven’t moved, perhaps you haven’t even breathed, for the past minute, because a crescendo of pain mixed with anger and beauty has gripped you.
Adapted from Calderón de la Barca’s Spanish classic The Painter of His Own Dishonour, Painting in Red was commissioned for the UCLA Clark Library’s Golden Tongues festival last year. This is a world premiere co-presented by Playwrights’ Arena, a company dedicated to works by Los Angeles writers, and handsomely staged by its artistic director, Jon Lawrence Rivera. (It’s presented in association with Greenway Arts Alliance.)
Alfaro’s rendition is a far cry from melodrama, from classical Spain, from the brooding, sweeping passions that inform the works of Calderón, in general, and from The Painter of His Own Dishonour, in particular. This is Alfaro’s play, Alfaro’s claim on the classic, and yet another of his claims on the topography of California.
As in Calderón’s play, Painting in Red is the story of an artist-painter who, like almost all of the characters, is named after the actors playing them. The artist is Justin (Justin Huen), with a troubled marriage to gallery owner Cristina (Cristina Frias). He desperately wants her to stay with him, but he feels her slipping away, perhaps from a life of habit, of tedium. If he could isolate the cause of his agony, or hers, his marriage might just enjoy a revival. Things get worse when West (West Liang) shows up — he’s the man whom Cristina was engaged to marry before his shipwreck during a bachelor party in Baja left him presumed dead. But he returns, all in white, perhaps just a figment of Justin’s imagination, or Cristina’s. He returns with echoes of Martin Guerre to reclaim the bride he lost, the bride who subsequently found such tentative satisfaction in wedlock to another man. Her desire clashes with her duty. As any student of the classics will tell you, this is an old story.
Alfaro refuses to fill the frame of his version with a series of emotional storms. Or perhaps it’s his complicity with Rivera’s meditative and surreal staging that renders this a production about passion in the midst of ennui, which means that nobody often gets too worked up. And when they do, Justin and his gay pal from their CalArts student days, Rodney (Rodney To), quip their way through the exigencies of their tenuous purpose in life.
Friends Joe and Elisa (Joe Hernandez-Kolski and Elisa Bocanegra) — after years of cohabitation, he’s finally proposed to her — have left the downtown loft scene for the margins of the megalopolis, the suburbs of Point Hueneme, near Oxnard. “I am living in Forest Lawn,” Elisa remarks. This is not a declaration of despair but of surrender. In Bocanegra’s playful hands, that’s a cheerful surrender, acquiescent. No moping, thank you all the same. Moping would be next to impossible with Olivia Newton-John (Jayme Lake) appearing as a phantom, and crooning ballads and ditties throughout. Euripides, this ain’t. Even Calderón, this ain’t.
Keith Skretch’s video design broadcasts close-ups of the actors playing out some of their scenes — a stock technique asking us to look at things from multiple angles at once. Sometimes the backdrop is simply a cinematic vista letting us know where the scene, on Christopher Scott Murillo’s set of rolling platforms, takes place.
The only character with urgency for anything at all is West, the interloper, the man wronged by destiny. Cristina’s protests against his naked appeal are fervent. At last, she has something to be fervent about. For the rest, they’re just slip-sliding their way across Los Angeles and Ventura counties, not because they’re propelled to do so but because, as artists, the land has tilted beneath them, and all they can do is roll toward the margins.
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Presented by Playwrights’ Arena in association with Greenway Arts Alliance, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., W. Hlywd. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 9. (323) 655-7679, www.greenwayarts.org.
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