COMMUNITY CHESTNUT

The most important community theater arises out of a community's need--and El Centro Su Teatro is a prime example of what the best community theater should be. Producing original plays in Spanish and English, Su Teatro draws on amateur and trained performers to give voice to the Hispanic community's struggles, fears and hopes.

Joaquin's Christmas, by artistic director Anthony Garcia, has become a seasonal tradition at Su Teatro, and for good reason: It is both lovable and scathing--a broadly parodistic treatment of the working-class struggle for equity in a world of upper-class avarice and self-indulgence. It works on a couple of important levels, too--as a family entertainment meant to appeal to young children and as political consciousness-raising for the grown-ups.

Seven-year-old Joaquin wants a bike for Christmas, but things are tough down at the factory where his papa works. The factory owner, Mr. Rich Van Wealthy, is squeezing the workers dry, and they have decided to strike. But Joaquin's sweet old granny meanwhile hires a talking dog to watch out for Joaquin--the dog is aptly named "Angel," since he functions as conscience and guardian of the child and social commentator for the audience.

Papa Mario comes home every night frustrated and ticked off. He takes it out on the kid, gruffly demanding that his little boy help in the kitchen and punishing him by withholding supper when he forgets to take out the garbage. Garcia means to scold the adults who forget the innocence of childhood--economic problems, he suggests, should never prevent the free expression of affection and support between father and son.

When Mario's mother-in-law arrives, the classic comic confrontation gets hilarious treatment--Abuela is played by the same man who plays Mr. Rich Van Wealthy, and singer/actor Manuel Roybal brings terrific comic presence, sardonic wit and a powerful singing style to his twin roles.

The men strike, and the women console. Young Joaquin decides for himself that a job would help him acquire a little power over his life, and he applies to Mr. Rich Van Wealthy. Playwright Garcia is, of course, addressing the divide-and-conquer strategy of those who would exploit workers. But, with the help of Angel, wide-eyed Joaquin sees through the master before the night is over, and the two steal Van Wealthy's Christmas dinner to feed to the strikers.

Garcia's political fable finds its strength in rather traditional and homely joys. But that's what helps it leap the culture gap as well. The renewed respect for the wisdom of elders, the need for restraint and affection in dealing with children, consideration between spouses, and the struggle for social justice are universal themes.

Gwylym Cano is a new addition this year to Su Teatro--a fine actor who combines a kind of Latino Woody Allen goofiness with an easy stage presence. His Angel the Dog is one of the chief pleasures of the production. Elizabeth Trujillo has a sweet voice and good carriage. Teenager Olivia Martinez was called in at the last minute to perform the role of Joaquin and her sparkling eyes and sweet presence endear her easily to the audience.

The play itself suffers from a number of continuity errors and needs a little re-writing (the script now being used is an early effort) to smooth out the transitions. Some of the acting is also a little raw--but that's part of community theater, too.

 
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