Photo by Anne Fishbein

“DRIVE IT! I WANT YOU TO GRAB THOSE CHILDREN BY the jugular, so they don't know what hit them!”

With his youthful build, cropped salt-and-pepper hair, and pocked face, Tony Plana leans forward in his chair, palms locked onto the surface of the table in front of him, calling out to his actors during a rehearsal for A Midsummer Night's Dream at East L.A. Community Youth Center's basketball court. Plana's voice, as well as the Bard's, careens off the bleachers with multiple echoes. Bare feet squeak on the polished floor as Puck makes a quick turn. Another character gets kneed in the groin and stands grimacing, twisted as a twig — a living cartoon. In a flash, Oberon brushes an herb over the injured character's eyes, setting him down gently onto a platform, easing him to sleep.

“Bottom, can you be a little more subtle?” Plana says later as the actors gather for notes on the edge of the set. “Subtle . . . It's rare I use that word.”

Plana's ensemble are not kids, but salaried professionals in sweats and sneakers, working through East L.A. Classic, a theater company where he now serves as executive artistic director. Its origins date back to 1992, when Plana, Robert Beltran, Ruben Sierra and Julie Arenal were looking for a way for classically trained Latino and minority artists to work on the classics “in culturally specific productions and adaptations.” Plana freely adapted Midsummer himself to an Aztec context wherein the aristocracy speaks sin Shakespeare's prose, while the indigenous characters throw in little Spanish interjections. The actors will be adorned in masks and tropical plumage when they perform the following day in a parking lot for 600 seventh-graders at an intermediate school in Montebello. (The production plays at the Ford Amphitheater, May 11­18.)

“The walking has to be more funny,” Plana tells Hermia, “like those Olympic walkers who shake their booty for 26 miles.”

The company's work wasn't always so broad. They tried Mexican-American adaptations of Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet and Arthur Miller's The Price in the early '90s, as the resident professional company at Cal State L.A. But nobody came, Plana explains, adding that if Hollywood and the Westside have difficulty finding a theatergoing public, then imagine the challenges east of downtown.

Many in Plana's fledgling company wanted to relocate the troupe to the Westside, where they'd have a better chance of promoting their film and TV careers. But Plana was determined to bring non-Spanish, European classics to East L.A. (Bilingual Foundation of the Arts presents Spanish classics.)

That both he and his wife, Ada Maris, are already in television series helps them afford their principles. (She's a regular on Nickelodeon's The Brothers Garcia; he, on Showtime's Resurrection Blvd.) When the company incorporated in 1995, it launched its mission to use theater as part of a literacy program (called Beyond Borders) and as an educational tool. The grants trickled in; the actors union, Equity, signed on; and East L.A. Classic was in business.

Plana admits his melting-pot convictions annoy ethnic-identity-driven artists, who accuse him of being Eurocentric. His artistic principles derive partly from his training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. “I haven't found a more powerful writer in the theater than Shakespeare; I never feel more powerful and more intelligent than when I'm doing Shakespeare in the theater. That's why I'm so passionate about sharing that language in the right way with students, with young students. I want them to be exposed to a complex language, and the art of acting. But any word I have to look up as an adult reader is gone from our productions, just so the kids can have greater access.” However, none of the characters' names is changed. Plana believes the children must know these names and absorb their legends.

Plana emigrated with his family to Miami from Cuba when he was 8, and remembers that his father had to officially resign directly to Che Guevara, “who was not very friendly.” Nor was Plana's family any friend of the Batista regime, which persecuted them and nudged their sympathies toward Fidel Castro. The Planas, however, believed in using Christianity to help people. After Castro closed Cuba's religious schools, Plana's parents saw no way out but to leave.

Ever since, Plana has been trying to move beyond borders and is irked that whenever he works in our local regional theaters, such as the Taper and South Coast Rep, he's relegated to ethnic projects. Theater should be like fusion food, he says, where cultures first collide, then intermingle.

TONY PLANA, actor/executive artistic director of East L.A. Classic. High points: Zoot Suit and The Boys of Winter on Broadway; Richard III and Widows at the Mark Taper Forum; Figaro Gets a Divorce at the La Jolla Playhouse. He is the recipient of two Golden Eagle awards for Outstanding Work in Film and Television, and five Drama-Logue awards.

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