CVIndependent

Sat10202018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Coachella Valley Repertory and artistic director Ron Celona are known for presenting challenging, thought-provoking theater pieces—and CV Rep has solidified that well-deserved reputation with Carmen Rivera’s La Gringa.

The Spanish version of the show opened at Repertorio Español in February 1996 and won an Obie that year. (CV Rep is presenting the English version.) It’s still in repertory and holds the distinction of being the longest-running Off-Broadway Spanish language play.

The story chronicles the journey of 20-something Maria (Ayanery Reyes), a Puerto Rican woman who was born and raised in New York, as she searches for her roots in her homeland. She heads to Puerto Rico at Christmas time to visit her aunt Norma (Marina Re), cousin Iris (Kyla Garcia) and uncles Victor (Robert Almodovar) and Manolo (Peter Mins). We also meet likable neighbor Monchi (Eliezer Ortiz), who owns a thriving vegetable farm.

Bouncing through the front door filled with enthusiasm and sporting a jeans-jacket adorned with a Puerto Rican flag appliqué, Maria hopes for a warm, fuzzy family reunion—and those hopes are soon dashed. Her hosts do not share her excitement about Puerto Rican life. They are blasé about the historical sites and irritated by the coqui frogs Maria considers charming.

Aunt Norma is bitter and filled with resentment that her sister Olga (Maria’s unseen mother) left the island to live in New York, and had their late mother buried far away from Norma’s home. Most of her anger is directed toward her niece, whom she calls la gringa (white girl), partly because Maria can barely speak Spanish. Norma is also filled with regret over opting for the ordinary life as a Puerto Rican housewife and mother over a once-promising singing career. Cousin Iris is frustrated over her as-yet unsuccessful job-hunting efforts, and she’s tired of island life in general. Though fond of Maria, she’s not thrilled about taking her on a tour of the island, and doesn’t really want to hear about the wonders of life in the Big Apple.

Norma’s brother, Uncle Manolo, is bedridden with an undisclosed illness. Norma treats him like a baby, yet she wields an iron hand, and is always on the lookout for the alcohol Manolo stashes under the bed. (Beer is one of the few pleasures he has left in life.) After all, he tells his sister: “I’m old, and I’m going to die. Let me drink!”

Norma’s husband, Victor, the good guy who tries to smooth things over, wonders why everyone just can’t get along. He spends most of the play attempting to get the family truck running … and eventually succeeds.

The cast is quite strong. Marina Re captures Norma’s self-righteous anger, which has been simmering for years. Her breakdown and eventual metamorphosis are quite moving. As Victor, Robert Almodovar is warm and appealing—the kind of guy with whom you’d like to share a drink. Peter Mins is very effective as Uncle Manolo; the audience genuinely feels his joy when he gets out of his sickbed. Eliezer Ortiz’s Monchi is fun to watch. We’re really rooting for his farm to succeed—and for Maria to fall for him. Kyla Garcia is quite good as Cousin Iris. She has great chemistry with Re and Reyes.

Though Ayanery Reyes is adorable as Maria—with a dazzling smile and great charisma—there were times when her acting came across as a tad shallow. Her transitions from deep sorrow to happiness (particularly after Uncle Victor announces he has made a stew out of the pet rabbit he recently gave her) sometimes don’t ring true. Reyes is dynamic onstage, and overall, she turns in a good performance; I’d just like to see her dig a little deeper emotionally.   

Ron Celona once again proves his skill as a director. He’s particularly good at casting, and elicits memorable performances from each actor. There were a few slow moments, though the pace does pick up in the second act.

Jimmy Cuomo’s set is fabulous and creates just the right tone, as does the music. Cricket S. Meyers, Randy Hansen and Karen Goodwin do great work on the play’s sound, and Eddie Cancel’s lights are fantastic. Aalsa Lee’s costumes and Lynda Shaep’s hair and makeup are terrific.

La Gringa is particularly timely considering our country’s ongoing political battle over immigration. The play does make you think about what the word “home” really means. In the end, the play proves that the cliché is true: Home is where the heart is.

La Gringa is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, or CV Rep to you, has launched its 2013-2014 season with Terrence McNally’s Master Class.

I was part of the very first audience of CV Rep’s new season. This little gem of a theater, located inside The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, tried out the idea of two “preview” shows before the grand opening. Not a bad idea. (The Independent would not normally review a preview performance, but we sent our November print edition to press before the grand opening. Therefore, the folks at CV Rep were kind enough to allow us to review the Wednesday-night preview.) CV Rep is also trying out a 7:30 curtain time, which, frankly, I love: 7 is too early, and 8 is so late, especially when you emerge from the theater in what feels like the middle of the night.

The open stage set which greets us, designed by Jimmy Cuomo, is charming. Stuart Fabel’s lighting is effective and creative. Aalsa Lee’s costumes are ideal. No changes needed here.

The play is set in 1971, at a “recital room” of Juilliard School, and Madame Maria Callas is going to teach a Master Class. We get to be the audience which is welcomed at such an event. Callas, at the time, was the most famous opera diva in the world, known for her tempestuous personality and style as much as her astonishing voice (which can reduce me to tears of awe within her first three notes).

But in the world of opera—whose mysterious, jealousy-ridden and colorful backstage we rarely see depicted in literature—the whispers have started: Is she losing her voice?

The role of Callas is a superhuman challenge for any actress, because of La Divina’s fame—and the circumstances which drove her to the top, both personal and historical. It’s also a challenge because of McNally’s script: It’s basically a two-hour monologue that demands emotional twists and turns you won’t believe. Marina Re plays Callas flawlessly, showing the naked pain, the unimaginable glory, the humiliation and despair, the obsessive perfectionism, and the dizzying excitement of her life—all on parade.

Her pronunciation of the many foreign languages which opera stars must command is very good. The gestures, facial expressions and body language fit. Her cheekbones are fabulous. She uses her eyes like Greeks do, and she moves like a once-overweight but now-thin woman. Re provides us with an astonishing amount of subtext.

How much of this is due to her interpretation of the role, and how much is due to the work of director Ron Celona? We’ll never know, but the results are stunning. Celona’s excellent work never calls attention to itself; every move is logical and natural—and this is the greatest compliment I can pay to a stage director.

The three innocent opera wannabes who have signed up for Maria Callas’ Master Class are absolutely delightful. Kara Masek plays Sophie; Mario Alberto Rios is Anthony; Nora Graham plays Sharon. These actors’ personal résumés go on for pages, and all three bring solid talents, serious training and surprisingly emotional interpretations to their roles. Opera, alas, is often filled with hackneyed gestures and stereotyped acting, leading to results that can be either hilarious or boring, but Callas demands Method-like research and deep thought from her students before even the first note is sung. The advice given to these aspirants by Callas is extremely worthwhile and important, and every serious performing-arts student could benefit from these teachings.

(Speaking of which: Some opera companies, in an attempt to educate that part of the audience that doesn’t speak the show’s foreign tongue, have set up an interpretive digitalized banner above the stage, which contains a running English translation. This has been met with mixed success. One of my friends attended an opera in which the chorus sang, over and over, a phrase which the banner assured the onlookers was: “We cry potatoes!”)

Steven Smith plays the role of Manny, the hapless piano accompanist who plays his music effortlessly and brings to the show another flavor—that of a steady working musician. Callas charms him, and then orders him around like a peasant; he bears both stoically. Michael Frank’s role of The Stagehand is played with more attitude, though he, too, is safe from La Divina’s storms, and he knows it.

We are overwhelmed by the gravitas and wisdom in McNally’s script—and by the emotional roller coaster through which Marina Re puts us. She recalls the height of Callas’ career at La Scala, and in the next minute, she is talking about having sex with the world’s richest (and power-mad, and abusive) man—and then she is a young girl again, an impoverished child in the middle of a war with nothing going for her but a fabulous voice and a burning determination to outwork anyone else. If you’re in the audience, you’ll need to brace yourself.

But do see this play, whether you’re a big opera buff, or you’ve never seen a live performance. Once you meet this volatile Maria Callas, you’ll never again fear a blonde valkyrie in metal breastplates.

Although the show I saw was a “preview,” all I can say is: Don’t change a thing.

Master Class, a production of the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 10. The theater is located at 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. $40. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance