‘Solitude’: Waxing Philosophical, Waning Into Tedium

RADAR L.A. entry "Solitude." Photo: Latino Theater Company

A stiff but stylish drama inspired by the philosophical musings of Octavio Paz, the Latino Theater Company’s Solitude attempts to imagine a Mexican-American existentialism but achieves only everyday, generalized angst.

The action, such as it is, begins at a funeral where Gabriel (Geoffrey Rivas) mourns the loss of both his mother and the 20 years he spent estranged from her after he left the barrio to find a lucrative career and a trophy wife.

When a childhood friend asks where the “party” after the service is, Gabriel ends up hosting an impromptu reunion that includes an old flame, her bookish son, a black-robed cellist and a character called The Man, “a limo driver who speaks at funerals … among other things” (played by Robert Beltran of Star Trek: Voyager fame). In between ruminations, revelations and recriminations, the entire cast takes regular timeouts to dance abstractedly to blaring Latin horns.

The dances, choreographed by Urbanie Lucero, are stately and psychedelic, somehow serious and kitschy at the same time. They are almost as lovely as Semyon Kobialka’s moaning cello work and Francois-Pierre Couture’s slick modernist set, dominated by a giant, slightly tilted frame standing in for a proscenium arch.

But the script by Evelina Fernandez (who also plays Ramona, the old flame) is just plain tedious.

“It’s a feeling of longing that has been a part of me for as long as I became aware of myself, of my existence,” young Angel tells Gabriel. “I can’t find (my purpose) and it can’t find me. It can’t find me in this city full of people and cars and buildings and smog and violence and tragedy and sorrow and joy and celebration and tears and laughter and ignorance and knowledge and liquor and drugs and prayers and promises. How can it? It’s out there, though. I know it is.”

You could give Fernandez the benefit of the doubt and assume she is breaking the first rule of narrative – show, don’t say – on purpose, to imitate the abstract psychocultural diagnosis in Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, which is liberally quoted throughout. But watching the play is like conversing with people who have spent their entire lives in therapy and have no sense of social filter: This is the way I am, and this is what happened in my childhood that made the way I am. Oh, how I wish I could be someone else! The playwright may think she has dramatized her ideas, but she’s merely turned them into dialogue.

The actors, directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela, make a valiant effort to bring the turgid text to life. Sal Lopez displays an easygoing charm as Johnny, the one who refers to a funeral reception as a party. Beltran, on the other hand, seems to be playing a parody of the Most Interesting Man in the World from those Dos Equis ads, with an exaggerated accent and cloying romanticism. Maybe he is trying to out-suave another Star Trek alum, Ricardo Montalban.

Ironically, some of the finest acting in the production is done by the cellist. Kobialka has no lines, but he maintains an intense focus on his fellow performers and reflects their emotions in his playing and in his eyes.

And why exactly is there a cellist onstage? It’s not just for mood music, because there’s plenty more of that being piped in over the speakers. He seems to be part of the show for the same reason as the Latin-dance interludes: to give the play an arty or “experimental” air.

The best things in Solitude are superfluous.

Solitude. RADAR L.A. Through Sunday, June 19, at Los Angeles Theatre Center. http://www.redcat.org/event/radar-la-festival

Kerry Lengel

Kerry Lengel was 16 when he wrote his first theater review, of his high school’s production of “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” It was the first time his credentials as a critic were questioned, but it wasn’t the last. He writes for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

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