The school auditorium where Su Teatro has staged Roosters is an unprepossessing environment; it resembles a large black box. The sound is flat, and naked bulbs light the stage. But director Phil Luna has made ingenious use of the space, placing the audience on three sides so that the performance is almost in the round, constructing specific stations -- the rooster's coop, the family kitchen and the ramshackle structure in which fifteen-year-old Angela likes to hide herself -- in three corners of the playing area. The actors inhabit this featureless world, which represents a run-down and dusty back yard, with calm authority. For the most part, they manage to fill it with life.
Gallo, played by Jaime Andrade, is a breeder of fighting cocks. His dream is to combine the high flight of one particular breed with the strong kicks of a second. When the play opens, he has been sent to prison for killing a man over a bird.
Meanwhile, his family struggles. Gallo's favorite fighter cock -- named, significantly, Zapata -- has been bequeathed to his son, Hector (Rich Castro), by his own father, Hector's grandfather. But Hector, who helps support the family by working in the fields -- a profession disdained by the macho Gallo -- isn't interested in the sport. There's one more fight scheduled; Hector plans to sell Zapata if the bird wins and kill him if he loses.
The other members of the family are Hector's little sister, Angela, his mother, Juana, and his aunt, Chata. Angela wears a white dress and tacky white wings. She talks to saints, hears voices, plays with sacred figurines and eventually asks God to send her a sign: "I'm attracted to levitations," she says. "But you choose." Angela gets playwright Milcha Sanchez Scott's best lines, but she could easily become a tiresomely fey figure. However, Sandina Tanguma plays her with flat simplicity and a moving and decidedly non-actor-like seriousness.
Gallo's release from prison galvanizes the small group. Within minutes, he's at odds with his son, romancing and then rebuking his wife, betraying the trust of the daughter who barely knows him. Of course, he wants Zapata back.
In addition to their conflict over Zapata, Hector and his father appear to be in competition for Juana; she's a little brown hen, worn down by work and worry over her feckless husband, but still nurturing her own fantasies of glamour. The play hints at the possibility of incest between her and Hector, though there's also a sexual current between Hector and his Aunt Chata, who, he maintains, has in her time serviced hundreds of workingmen. Chata is cheery, chatty and passionate; for the most part, the moment a thought crosses her mind, it's out of her mouth.
There are genuinely resonant moments to Sanchez Scott's script and some wonderful pieces of writing, but there are also glaring weaknesses. The plot is by turns lagging and obvious; despite all the passion, it lacks forward momentum. Roosters functions best at the metaphoric level. Obviously, Zapata (a live, caged rooster in Su Teatro's production) represents the kind of power, grandeur and freedom to which Gallo aspires -- an alternative to the grinding physical labor that's his only other option. But there's something mystical going on here, too. The bird also represents Hector, or at least the hopes Gallo has for him. There's a fantasy dance-fight scene in which Gallo deliberately bloodies Hector, who is feathered and wearing a bright-combed rooster head. Later, this scene is re-enacted in deadly reality as a full-fledged fight. And bedraggled, white-winged Angela carries her own freight of archetypal meaning.
There are delightful stretches of fantasy in Roosters, as when Angela peers at a peach, declares it to be hollow and describes the world she sees inside it, which includes rocks, seas and a tiny angel with kinky hair. Curious, Chata picks up the fruit. "I don't see dick," she says, taking a bite.
But if the visual imagery is strong, some of the verbal flights are less so. Characters keep giving would-be poetic speeches that illuminate neither their specific situations nor the human condition in general. Some of the arguments feel cliched, and Gallo -- whose beginning monologue rather charmed us -- degenerates too quickly into a typical violent and overbearing paterfamilias. Though most of the problem is in the writing, I think director Luna might want to re-examine some of the playing rhythms, too.
Andrade does a good, strutting job with Gallo, and Rich Castro combines strength with an occasional and disarming touch of delicacy as Hector. I liked Debra Gallegos's easy way as Chata; perhaps she could have been even more slutty and ebullient. While giving a grounded and unassuming performance as Juana, Magally Rizo Antuna also rises fully to her emotional climaxes. Aaron Vieyra brings a goofy, low-key and charming realism to his role as the family's empathetic friend, Adan. At best, stage fights can look silly, and when you're depicting struggles between actors dressed as poultry, you're really entering dangerous territory. The fact that Su Teatro pulled off both is testament to the skill of Magally Rizo Antuna, who, in addition to playing Juana, choreographed the show.
Compensating with energy and passion for its limited physical resources, Su Teatro has created a vividly challenging evening of theater.
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