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As part of the Radar L.A. Festival involving international theater events featuring dozens of both local and imported cutting edge companies from around the world – now ongoing at Disney Hall’s REDCAT, UCLA, the Getty Villa and numerous other venues – the Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City is presenting three solo shows in repertory. The first to open is St. Jude by the long-trailblazing playwright Luis Alfaro, whose career has been one of the successes of that time when the CTG pursued the nurturing of new indigenous talent.
Alfaro has most generally made his mark with brusque and fanciful updated adaptations of classical texts such as Oedipus el Rey, Electridad (from Electra) and Bruja (fromMedea). His Aesop in Rancho Cucamonga will premiere next month. Meanwhile, we have the man himself, with his self-effacing yet outsized personality, playing out his memories of growing up picking fruit in California’s Central Valley, his escape from that life, and his inevitable, sentimental returns to his family and his roots, punctuating his tales with gospel hymns he importunes the audience to join in singing.
Indoctrinated into devotional religion by both his Catholic father and his Pentecostal mother, Alfaro amusingly recalls: “None of the modern problems of the church back then. Not a single priest ever laid a hand on me… (pause) dammit!” Or, “I don’t speak in tongues. They say I did, but I don’t remember.” Whether snacking with his “bad seed” brother on communion wafers, or mistaking a family absence for the coming of The Rapture from which he has been left behind, Alfaro lovingly invites us into his culture and its influences, constraints and deep bonds of affection.
While Alfaro’s presence is highly theatricalized, his tone remains conversational and intimate, taking the audience into his confidence with assurance, so much so that it takes a while to realize that he is relating all his tales in a nearly subliminal verse. It’s deft and rigorously relaxed poetry, and he has a dramatist’s sure-footed way with narrative and interlocked imagery. His 80-year-old father still supervises his Orange County shop floor and plays in a senior soccer league, where a toe injury leads to a life-threatening mitral valve infection, drawing a devoted son back to involve himself in his hospital care.
Nevertheless, for all its subtle literary sheen, St. Jude at base remains a rather forthright piece of direct address storytelling, and anecdotally not appreciably more profound or moving than much of what one can hear on public radio, which has achieved an impressively consistent standard of comparable quality. Alfaro’s physical reality lends heft to the piece, and he does inject a soupcon of performance art gesture, actually pricking his fingers more than a half-dozen times to lay drops of his blood on projected slides of maps of the towns along Highway 99 that represent both his past and present. It’s a sanguinary ritual of a diabetic son in solidarity with his diabetic father. Yet it gently evokes the more extreme mutilations of icons of the performance art genre, such as Ron Athey.
Venue: Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (runs through Oct. 6)
Cast: Luis Alfaro
Director: Robert Egan
Playwright: Luis Alfaro
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Sound designer: Adam Phalen
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