Press

“Director Jerry Ruiz helmed “Basilica” earlier this summer, one of the two or three truly great plays I’ve seen so far this year. He has done it again here, and one hopes he will quickly take his place as one of the industry’s go-to directors when it’s important that something be staged well.” –Brian Wallace, Edge Providence review of “Philip Goes Forth” at the Mint Theater Company
Hartford Courant Review for ‘Fade’

‘Fade’ is Grander than its Office Setting

by Christopher Arnott

“Fade,” at TheaterWorks through June 30, is a series of short, casual conversations that slowly add up to something bigger.

 The play is about heritage and status and identity, and particularly about how important those things are in cultures that feel oppressed and misunderstood. But playwright Tanya Saracho questions the value of those elements as well. She finds the thin lines between cultural pride and bigotry, and between empowerment and overreach.

Lucia and Abel continually discuss what it’s like to be Latino or Hispanic in today’s world. They even argue about the terms:

Lucia: Like with this show. It has this main character, she’s Hispanic, which is…

Abel: You mean Latina?

Lucia: What?

Abel: She’s Latina. Not Hispanic.

Lucia: Whatever.

Abel: No. Not whatever.

Lucia: Listen, I’m not going to go get into the whole Latino vs. Hispanic thing with you because if all those think-tanks haven’t figured out which term we should be using, there’s no way you and I are figuring it out. If you want to get technical, the term is now “Latinix.”

Abel: It’s what?

There are descriptions of life in Mexico and in Abel’s El Sereno neighborhood in Los Angeles. There are direct references to “Trump’s America.” Lucia, who is Mexican, has been hired as a writer on a TV drama that has Latino themes. She feels she was only hired because of her race, and says one of the other writers demeans her as “a diversity hire.”

At times the verbal dance between Lucia and Abel is so fraught and tense that it feels like Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.” At others it’s Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” And because the writing of a screenplay is involved, there’s a taste of Sam Shepard‘s “True West.”

Loud Spanish pop music is piped in during the many transitions from one short scene to the next, keeping the action hopping. Mariana Sanchez’s set design and Amith Chandrashaker’s bright lighting design cleverly lets us see what’s going on in the corridor behind the closed blinds of Lucia’s office.

There’s a wonderful tiny moment in “Fade” where Lucia is ranting and pacing. Abel quietly interjects that she should sit down. No, she responds, she’s too upset. And she doesn’t sit. It may seem like a minor thing, but it’s one that doesn’t happen a lot in theater. It’s the sort of exchange that happens in real life, when people are scattered and guarded. “Fade” is full of such naturalistic moments that ring true.

Director Jerry Ruiz squired this script through its world premiere in Denver, last year and its off-Broadway production earlier this year, and Eddie Martinez played Abel in both those productions as well. Their deep, nuanced understanding of Sarachos’s script really shows. Elizabeth Ramos is nicely cast as Lucia. She has the right mix of attractiveness and neurosis for this character, who has considerable confidence but is still learning a lot about herself. Ramos and Martinez bait each other, and complement each other, beautifully.

“Fade” is a world-wise, world-weary drama set in an office, and it works.

Variety THEATER REVIEW for ‘MALA HIERBA’

Second Stage really knows how to show a girl a good time, the proof being its excellent track record of producing vital work by important women playwrights. Chalk up another win with “Mala Hierba,” a funny and frightening play that Chicago scribe Tanya Saracho (“Looking,” “Girls”) has set in the household of a brutal player in the narcotics trade on the Tex-Mex border. In helmer Jerry Ruiz’s riveting production, the real drama takes place behind the scenes, in the private life of the tyrant’s gorgeous trophy wife and the women who either enable or threaten her precarious existence.  

Marta Milans, the Amazonian beauty on ABC’s recently axed “Killer Women,” gives the drug lord’s wife, Liliana, everything a trophy wife must have to survive — and then some. Besides the body of a goddess and the Scheherazade-like skill to contain her husband’s irrational rages, she also possesses the street cunning of a girl who came up from abject poverty and the strength to endure the punishing brutality of the monster she married. (Leather belts figure in his sadistic version of sexual foreplay.)

Liliana’s faithful maid, Yuya (played with humor and heart by Chicago stage vet Sandra Marquez), is her sole companion and guardian, the kind of maternal warrior who would pick up her sword and kill to protect her charge.  But not even Yuya can shield Liliana from her stepdaughter, Fabiola, a baby monster in Ana Nogueira’s viciously funny portrayal.

This spoiled brat has come down from Houston, where she is supposedly studying, for her father’s 55th birthday party. And since she’s Daddy’s only daughter and the apple of his eye, this little hellcat has enormous power over Liliana. Nogueira has great fun with the role, snatching her stepmother’s own party dress off her back (costumer Carisa Kelly gets the fashionably slutty look of the clothes just right), taking claim to Liliana’s brand new car, and grabbing every other little toy that catches her eye.

As shrewd as she is beautiful, Liliana does the smart thing — she gives this evil princess whatever she wants and prays that she won’t ruin the elaborate celebration that took six months to plan. And for a while, this tactic seems to work. “You are my favorite of my dad’s wives,” Fabiola bubbles. “You’re almost like a sister to me — but like not.”

Nogueira delivers this laugh-getting line with a chilling layer of ice, leaving no doubt that this wild child can become dangerous. As indeed she does, when she invites Maritza (Roberta Colindrez), Liliana’s onetime lesbian lover, to the big party. Maritza is not only a sexy presence, in Colindrez’s cool and contained perf, she’s also Liliana’s only hope to escape the glamorous but treacherous world that has become her prison.

Aside from the interesting gender hook, Liliana’s dilemma is one that romantic heroines often find themselves in — to retain her wealth and social position as the pampered pet of a cruel and powerful husband, or to escape for a more uncertain life with a lover. Saracho has a firm grasp on the inherent drama of this love-and-hate triangle, and helmer Ruiz (who recently directed “Basilica” for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater) gets some fierce performances from his highly committed cast.

But there’s more to this play than a conventional romantic dilemma, however entertainingly presented. Although the action is confined to Liliana’s boudoir (elegantly tacky, in Raul Abrego’s efficient design scheme), there’s a larger drama going on in the world outside the narco compound. It’s not part of the plot, but it keeps asserting itself in throwaway lines and casual exchanges that resonate throughout the play.

One such reference is made to a brother of Liliana’s who died in the cartel wars that are constantly claiming lives in this hotspot zone between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, on the other side of the border. And when Liliana daydreams about a more stable life as a governor’s wife, Yuya quickly reminds her that “they’re killing governors right now. La mafia is making a video game of beheading them for points.”

Given the gang wars, wholesale executions, and violent kidnappings in this region of the Rio Grande Valley, Liliana has good reason to fear for her life and for the safety of her family who live outside the compound.  “Too many of us depend on you,” Yuya reminds her, when she makes plans to run off to Chicago with Maritza.  Although Saracho tells Liliana’s story with a lusty sense of humor, she makes it clear that the life of a trophy wife is one of the most perilous jobs on either side of the border.

 

NY TIMES THEATER REVIEW | ‘LOVE GOES TO PRESS’

Dispatches, Lighthearted but Exacting, From the Front Lines

By RACHEL SALTZ 

Published: June 20, 2012

Interestingly, “Love Goes to Press,” the latest work to be plucked out of obscurity and dusted off by the invaluable Mint Theater Company, isn’t a heavy treatise on war but an enjoyable romantic comedy, whose real skirmishes are between the sexes. With its rat-a-tat rhythms, this Jerry Ruiz-directed production evokes the screwball comedies of the era, a sort of “His Girl Friday” at the front lines.

The year is 1944, and the dateline Poggibonsi, Italy, just a few miles from where the battle rages. Two “lady correspondents,” Jane Mason (Angela Pierce) and Annabelle Jones (Heidi Armbruster), breeze into the press camp there, much to the irritation of the British major in charge (Bradford Cover), who insists that they be given no special treatment.

But Jane and Annabelle are famous and adept at getting special treatment, whether from a general sending a comfy car or an Air Force pilot willing to fly an unauthorized mission. As one admiring colleague says, they “sail around looking like Vogue illustrations and they get the stories before you’ve even heard of them.” They do look great in their wide-legged, high-waisted pants and the occasional red pumps. (The costumes are by Andrea Varga.)

The major, a Yorkshire farmer in civilian life, eventually falls for Jane, won over by her passion and courage. (In his Ralph Bellamy way, he calls her “one of the sweetest little girls I’ve ever met.”) But could Jane settle down in Yorkshire, making butter and cheddar cheese?

Also at the camp is Joe Rogers (Rob Breckenridge), Annabelle’s ex, a hard-drinking reporter who has a history of stealing her scoops and is now engaged to a ninny of a British actress (Margot White).

Mining 1940s theater and film styles, “Love Goes to Press” can feel satisfyingly old-fashioned. But it also has contemporary bite, focusing on the struggles of two intelligent, self-aware women to combine love and career. (Nice, too, that they’re friends and not undermining enemies.)

Ms. Gellhorn and Ms. Cowles didn’t write a great play, but they did produce a solid, entertaining and only occasionally creaky one. The Mint production gives a good account of it, though some of the lead performances could use more sparkle. Ms. Armbruster is a standout, sharp-tongued without being brittle, but Mr. Breckenridge doesn’t quite know what to make of the slippery Joe.

Still, Jane and Annabelle, comic versions of their authors, make the play shine. They’re like the little sisters of the fast-talking Warner Brothers dames of the 1930s: educated and all grown up and courageous enough to go off to war, notebooks at the ready and every hair in place.

TIMEOUT NY REVIEW | ‘LOVE GOES TO PRESS’

By DIANE SNYDER

Published: June 19, 2012

Shells aren’t all that’s exploding at the Poggibonsi press camp in Italy. As World War II rages outside, the passions of two enterprising female reporters near the front lines detonate in Love Goes to Press, a smartly silly 1946 screwball comedy by pioneering war correspondents Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles. Jerry Ruiz’s gleaming revival (remarkably, the first since the play bombed on Broadway) emerges as both contemporarily entertaining and of its time, and the irresistible Angela Pierce and Heidi Armbruster wear with aplomb roles that could have fit Rosalind Russell or Katharine Hepburn back in the day.

The authors’ surrogates, Jane Mason (Pierce) and Annabelle Jones (Armbruster), are serious about their careers but still feminine (attire includes khakis offset with bright red nail polish and lipstick). Most of their male peers welcome them, but their presence riles Philip (Bradford Cover), a sour British PR officer who ends up wooing Jane, and Annabelle’s ex-husband, Joe (Rob Breckenridge), a competitive colleague and story stealer for whom she still pines.

War is just the backdrop for what is really a workplace and relationship comedy, a kind of mid-20th-century chick-lit tale, if you will. But for Gellhorn, Cowles, Ruiz and his top-drawer cast of 11, lighthearted comedy doesn’t become fluff or cheapen character. Even one that would be easy to ridicule—Joe’s excitable new fiancée, troop entertainer Daphne (a perpetually charming Margot White)—is painted brightly. It turns out that Gellhorn and Cowles were as perceptively egalitarian in playwriting as in journalism.

BACKSTAGE REVIEW | ‘MARIELA IN THE DESERT’

By Clifford Lee Johnson III

Published: Feb. 6, 2012

Though she speaks in Spanish and one has to listen through earphones to understand what she’s saying, it is as clear as a desert morning that Zulema Clares is delivering a masterful performance in “Mariela en el Desierto (Mariela in the Desert),” a Repertorio Español production directed by Jerry Ruíz. Clares’ subtly modulated portrayal of a mother who has repressed her own aspirations as an artist in order to support those of her husband allows us to feel the cost of burying dreams for the benefit of loved ones who don’t appreciate the sacrifice. With tenderness peppered by bursts of passion and a wise but weary sense of humor, Clares breathes life into Karen Zacarias’ moving but rather predicable “buried secret” play.

The actor plays Mariela, who lives in the desert with her husband, José, a semi-famous Mexican painter dying of diabetes, and his unmarried sister Oliva. To entice their daughter Blanca to return for a visit, Mariela sends a telegram stating that José is dead. Blanca soon arrives with her lover Adam, an American professor of art history, in tow. As scenes in the present and past intermingle, we learn the secret of why José slashed his most famous painting in a fit of rage. We also learn the full story behind the death of Mariela’s son Carlos, who perished years ago in a fire.

Ruiz elicits rich performances from the entire cast and steers the action from the present to the past and back again with ease and clarity. As José, Alfredo Huereca finds a niche between machismo and self-pity where he is able to limn a fiercely proud man who knows he has behaved badly. María Helan gives Blanca a depth that belies her youth, and in roles that skirt caricature, Teresa Yenque (Oliva), John Concado (Adam), and José Joaquin Pérez (Carlos) find moments of individuality. Robert Weber Federico’s simple set, an open playing area placed in front of a score of blank canvases, provides a touch of physical poetry.

NY TIMES THEATER REVIEW | ‘ENFRASCADA’

Revenge as a Dish Served in Mason Jars

By CHARLES ISHERWOOD

Published: June 8, 2011

A bad breakup inspires an odyssey into the realms of exotic spiritualism — or at least highly decorative forms of revenge — in Tanya Saracho’s play “Enfrascada,” the first production in the Clubbed Thumb theater company’s annual Summerworks festival at Here Arts Center. The first significant salvo in what has become an exhausting gantlet of June-to-September festivals in New York, the Summerworks series has previously presented early work by talented writers including Sarah Ruhl, Gina Gionfriddo and Adam Bock.

Ms. Saracho, a Mexican-born playwright based in Chicago whose version of “The Cherry Orchard” was recently seen at the Goodman Theater there, has written a likable but lightweight comedy about a perennial subject that plays, for good and ill, like an extended episode of “Sex and the City” set among Latinas in Chicago: “Sexo y la Windy Ciudad.” It’s all too easy to recognize the play’s central quartet as female singleton types with DNA drawn directly from that highly influential HBO series.

The petite Alicia (Flora Diaz) is the Carrie figure around whom the posse rallies when she discovers, in the play’s first scene, that Diego, her boyfriend of nine years, has been seeing someone else. (The play’s title translates as “Engaged.”) Yesenia (Jessica Pimentel), who translates to Samantha, is a hot-blooded woman on the prowl exulting in her sexuality and spitting out spicy bursts of invective — rather more frequently in Spanish than non-Spanish speakers will probably appreciate — when the subject of Diego’s other woman is raised.

The Charlotte equivalent is Carolina (Anna Lamadrid), domestically inclined, contentedly partnered and newly pregnant. And in place of the brainy Miranda is Lulu (Christina Pumariega), the cousin who takes Alicia in when she flees the apartment she shared with Diego, and who spouts bits of consoling philosophy from a catholic array of sources, from Aristophanes to Malcolm X.

The reeling Alicia tries the more socially acceptable forms of healing, like psychotherapy, but under the encouraging clucking of Yesenia and Carolina begins searching for remedies that won’t just heal her heart but also bring her man back, by whatever means necessary.

This cues a series of comic encounters with psychics and spell weavers, all played by Annie Henk, all of whom seem to be cutting deals with manufacturers of Mason jars. (The spells tend to involve collecting exotic arrays of detritus, some kind of ritual chanting and the burying or tending of these jars.) The repetitive nature of these scenes is amplified by having each of these comical healers embroiled in some sort of screechy domestic drama: a battle with the neighbors upstairs or a tussle with a recalcitrant child.

Under the direction of Jerry Ruiz, the actresses mostly give vivid if sometimes oversaturated performances, with Ms. Pimentel leading the party with her head-wagging, booty-shaking Yesenia. But the characters don’t develop many dimensions, and it is hard to engage emotionally with Alicia’s desperate hope to be reunited with her boyfriend. His caddishness is established early on, when we learn that he let his new girlfriend be discovered lounging in Alicia’s bed on her return to Chicago from a weekend away.

Although Ms. Saracho can write piquant, natural dialogue that rings true to the milieu and characters, nothing of consequence really takes place in “Enfrascada,” which feels stretched at 90 minutes. As Alicia’s moroseness and neediness snowballs, you wish one of her tart-tongued friends would unleash with a little tough love. If my limited Spanish had extended to “Get over it, girl,” I might have been tempted to pipe up myself.

MINNEAPOLIS STAR-TRIBUNE REVIEW | ‘WAITING FOR THE HEARSE’

Strong cast drives humorous ‘Hearse’

By Lisa Brock

Published: April 22, 2008

Your sons profess to adore you, but can’t remember when your birthday is or even how old you are. Your daughters-in-law consider you a burden to be dodged and speculate on how many years you might have left. With children like these, what mother needs enemies?

Such is the premise of “Esperando la Carroza” (“Waiting for the Hearse”), Mixed Blood Theatre’s season-closer and its 10th annual bilingual production. Material that could make for a bleak family drama becomes the stuff of comic absurdity in the hands of Uruguayan playwright Jacobo Langsner, as three couples grapple with the problem of how to take care of their octogenarian mother. Adapter and director Jerry Ruiz has relocated this work from Buenos Aires to Chicago and translated large sections into English, adding a layer of social commentary as the action plays out against the backdrop of the American dream.

Mama Cora (in a delightfully wide-eyed cameo by Yolanda Cotterall) has lived for the past four years in the tiny apartment of son Jorge (Pedro R. Bayon) and his wife, Susan (Jennifer Maren). The addition of a new baby, however, has made the situation untenable, so Susan pressures her husband to put Mama Cora in a nursing home. This suggestion wreaks havoc among the family members: The brothers refuse to consider the idea, and their wives panic at the thought of bringing Mama Cora to their own homes.

When the old lady suddenly goes missing, the crisis escalates. Economic status, ethnicity (Susan is white), and sexual infidelity all add fuel to the fire, as accusations fly and alliances are broken as quickly as they are formed.

This play is all about the women of the family, and Maren, Maggie Bofill and Nora Montañez dominate the stage as the three sisters-in-law. Their husbands, in contrast, played by Bayon, Ric Oquita and Raúl Ramos, wander Joseph Stanley’s beautifully detailed set in varying degrees of despair, obliviousness or ineffectual bluster. It’s a strong cast, but the play is pitched at such a histrionic level in the opening scenes that by the end of the evening they struggle a little to take the material even further over the top.

Nevertheless, “Esperando La Carroza” is a lively production that offers a good opportunity to see Langsner’s work within a unique setting. Although much of the dialogue transpires in Spanish, this production is completely accessible to non-Spanish-speaking audiences, due as much to the expressiveness of the acting company as to the supertitles projected above the stage.

NY TIMES THEATER REVIEW | ‘THE KING IS DEAD’
It’s Just Your Normal, Paranormal Teenage Angst

By RACHEL SALTZ

Published: August 15, 2008

“Everyone at school thinks you’re weird,” Jonah says to Farrah after planting a stealth kiss on her. And she is. She plays the viola, has no friends and what’s more, she and her twin brother, Finn, share psychic visions.

In the Playwright’s Note to her sharp new work, “The King Is Dead,” a Highwire Theater production at the Abingdon Theater Arts Complex, Caroline V. McGraw says she’s “the world’s biggest Stephen King fan.” You can see his influence in the twins’ paranormal powers and Finn’s sexually charged misuse of them as he creepily pursues a popular girl.What Ms. McGraw does so well, though, has nothing to do with horror. Focusing on that strange, serious time — let’s call it senior year of high school — when everything seems at stake, she effectively captures the awkwardness and yearning of teenagers, their smarts and humor, verbal tics and tribal rites.Like Ms. McGraw’s writing, Farrah (the winning Jessica Kaye) has a firm grounding in reality. She has the attention of Jonah (Lucas Kavner), a cool nerd with a guitar. Most of all, she has a desire to break her mind meld with Finn (Evan Greene). The play’s dramatic punch comes from its understanding of what it costs to leave the comforts — and oddities — of family to strike out alone.Directed by Jerry Ruiz, the production makes excellent use of its small but potent resources. The well-conceived sets (by Tim Mackabee) — a paneled hotel room, a teenager’s bedroom — create a sense of the claustrophobic world of high schoolers. And the cast makes the characters believable, their language organic.Mr. Kavner, for example, can make a little comic poem of a line like “They were out of barbeque; I got onion ’n’ garlic” (as in chips). And Liz Holtan, as the popular girl Cath, gives the play a second compelling heroine.Only a few things here don’t work. The ending seems abrupt. And the Graceland setting and Elvisiana of the first act — the class is on a school trip — are distracting. Ms. McGraw explores American culture so successfully through her characters that she doesn’t need the symbolic baggage.

NYTHEATRE.COM REVIEW | ‘RATTLERS’

By Michael Mraz

Published: November 8, 2008

Rattlers, the second installment in Johnna Adams’s Angel Eaters Trilogy, adopts a very different pace and style from the superb opening chapter of the play cycle, Angel Eaters. However, though more a character study, tightly weaving three different simultaneous stories, it still shares the dark heart and uneasy tone set by Part One. With Rattlers, Adams and Flux Theatre Ensemble delve into what six people are driven to do to deal with the death of one person that connects them all.

Set in 1975, Rattlers opens with a character we have met briefly before in Angel Eaters: one of the twin boys of Nola Hollister (the pregnant, rebellious daughter of the Hollister family), Osley. We quickly find out that the family’s dreaded “gift,” the ability to raise the dead while simultaneously killing all of the good in the soul of the once-deceased, has been passed on to the twins. Osley’s brother Rooster embraced the gift, grew horns, and gave himself to the devil, while Osley has spent his life trying to embrace the path of God. But his ex-girlfriend, Ernelle, and her slimy, rattlesnake-charming man (aptly named “Snake”) have other plans. Ernelle’s beloved sister Kate has just been brutally murdered; she knows of Osley’s talent and will stop at nothing to get him to bring her sister back.

Focus then shifts to Kate’s funeral, where we get a look at an intimate conversation between two men who loved Kate at different times in her life: a boy from her hometown, Ted, who’s now the undertaker at the funeral home and has held an unrequited love for Kate since childhood, and her husband Everett. As their conversation about Kate unfolds, revealing deep, dark secrets about each, we find that not only were they the two who may have loved her most in the world but they are also the prime suspects in her murder.

Finally, we get a portrait of Kate’s mother, hell-bent on using a young boy who harbors a desire for her to avenge her daughter’s death. The script moves among each of the stories with a quickening pace until the play’s disturbing climax. In the end, Rattlers focuses on love and both the tender moments and unspeakable evils each character is willing to perform for the thing they love most in the world. Once again, the trilogy submerges the audience in the fine lines between darkness and light; no one is quite innocent and yet you can’t really hate them for what they do.

The performances are once again stellar, most notably those of Jason Paradine and Richard B. Watson, as Osley and Everett, respectively. Paradine makes you feel every ounce of his conflict as he struggles with an impossible choice of staying on God’s path or protecting his family by literally sacrificing his soul. Watson infuses every word and movement with a violent, tense menace, but balances this with moments of great tenderness toward Ted and his late wife, constantly keeping the watcher on his toes. However each performance benefits greatly from their scene partners. Amy Lynn Stewart walks a fine line between making Ernelle completely despicable, but absolutely sympathetic, while Matthew Crosby’s sweetness and longing (as Ted) for the girl he could have only in death is heart-wrenching. Jerry Ruiz’s tight direction pulls every moment of tension, love, and horror out other Adams’s words (though, if there were only one small complaint, it would be that Caleb Levengood’s superb, wraparound set is not utilized fully by the staging, but that’s minor nitpicking).

The overall design of Rattlers continues the splendid consistency of Flux’s production team. Jennifer Rathbone once again creates wonderful stage pictures with her use of light and shadow (and is skillfully utilized by the actors). Asa Wember’s sound does the best job of connecting the pieces of the trilogy with the blending of sound effects used in Angel Eaters with newly created ones, reminding me a bit of a skillful composer building a musical soundscape throughout a good movie series. And hats off to Emily DeAngelis for making it look like Matthew Crosby’s Ted was brought to the show via time-machine from 1975 (complete with a ’70s mustache and shaggy hair).

Rattlers builds on the strong start of Adams’s Angel Eaters, swimming in some of the same themes but daring to skillfully ask new questions about life, death, God, and love. It stands on its own as a very strong character study of seven people, and would be an enjoyable, disturbing, thought-provoking piece of theatre independent of the trilogy. However, seeing Rattlers as part of the whole brings an added level of suspense and impact to the piece; and an already affecting night of theatre is made that much more significant.

 

OTHER PRESS

‘Enfrascada’ featured in papermag.com as THE TOP TEN BEST OFF-OFF BROADWAY PLAYS OF 2011 ACCORDING TO TOM MURRIN

‘Love Goes to Press’ featured in nydailynews.com as The top 10 things on the New York stage for the week of June 24, 2012