Muddled 'Adoration' stuck in clichés, stereotypes
Even in these times of heightened sensitivity, it ought to be possible to question the United States through art. To ask whether this nation lives up to its ideals. To write a play that can cause even the most reflexively pro-American citizens to re-examine its shortcomings.
Jose Rivera did not write that play, although that seems to be the rather fuzzy aim of "Adoration of the Old Woman," now in its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Nor did he write a play that explores what it means to be Puerto Rican, although the island commonwealth is the setting for the play.
Instead, Rivera disappointingly uses "Adoration" to endlessly repeats the same tired clichés and stereotypes seen at seemingly every anti-U.S. rally and demonstration over the past 30 years.
Even if one agrees with those political sentiments, such threadbare imagery makes for very tiresome theater.
The story takes place in a small village in the near future of Puerto Rico, where yet another vote on whether to seek independence or statehood is about to take place. Vanessa, a young American woman of Puerto Rican heritage, has been sent to her great-grandmother's as punishment by her parents.
Once there, she is courted both sexually and politically by two local men one representing the pro-independence movement, the other pro-statehood.
An early confrontation between the nationalist Cheo and the pro-U.S. Ismael furnishes one of the few moments of real originality in the play. Rivera provides a short bit of insight into what is clearly a heated dispute within the Puerto Rican community. Unfortunately, he quickly flinches from such risk-taking, and retreats to the safer ground of rehashing old slogans.
Rivera also lets the character of the hundred-year-old great-grandmother, Doña Belen, come frighteningly close to originality and wit a few times before likewise reining her in. During the opening scene, when Vanessa has just arrived on her doorstep, Doña Belen mutters, "The hole in the human heart is infinite and can't be filled by Kmart."
But other than these few gems, Rivera has his characters trading bumper sticker political slogans and the sort of simplistic political explanations one hears in a college dorm room at 2 a.m.
The actors are game, and take a stab at breathing some life into the drones handed them to portray. Tamara Mello gives Vanessa a certain jaundiced view of things, so she doesn't come across as a complete spoiled mall rat. And Gary Perez's portrayal of the pro-statehood Ismael is of a likeable man who lives life as it comes.
Ivonne Coll gives Doña Belen a strong, fighting spirit, and excels at portraying the woman's mystical beliefs without mockery or condescension.
John Ortiz has perhaps the toughest job of all trying to make the nationalistic Cheo three-dimensional. Ortiz struggled a bit with this challenge most of the evening, Cheo came across as simply too strident to be capable of growth. But Ortiz never backs down from the challenge, and his Cheo is at least likeable and charming.
Further contributing to the muddled feeling of "Adoration" is the use of halting, stilted English to simulate Vanessa's supposedly limited Spanish. Why not have her speak in Spanish and then have another character translate? In fact, at one point, Doña Belen's words ARE translated but from English to English, only adding to the confusion. And toward the end, when the ghost Adoracion (who haunts Doña Belen's bed) is speaking to Vanessa, her pidgin English borders very closely on becoming an insult to Spanish-speakers.
But such is the danger of trading in clichés once you get started, it's hard to stop at the folks you originally set out to criticize.
Review by Jim Trageser. Jim is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif.
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