Lydia -- Theater Review

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At first, Octavio Solis' new play doesn't seem to have much on its mind beyond sprinkling the audience with surrealistic fairy dust. There are more than enough hints, though, that beneath the initial veneer of charm and slick professionalism lies a terrible undercurrent of emotional melodrama and sexual violence.

"Lydia" is set during the early 1970s in the hazardous Tex-Mex town of El Paso, across the border from Juarez. At first it's incongruously like a '70s sitcom as the family introduces itself, speaking English accented by Spanish and vice versa. But quickly and irreversibly, family members are swept away, whole and in parts, by the injustice and brutality of their world.

The victims and perpetrators of the melodrama are a dysfunctional family of Mexican aliens, some legal and some not: a drunken, abusive father (Daniel Zacapa), an uncomfortably sensitive brother struggling with puberty (Carlo Alban), a furious older brother (Tony Sancho), a completely dependent sister whose brain was starved of blood during a car accident three days before her confirmation (Onahoua Rodriguez), a sexually ambiguous cousin (Max Arciniega) and a mother (Catalina Maynard) who denies everything in sight.

The action starts when Lydia (Stephanie Beatriz), an implausible half-goofball, half-siren cross between Mary Poppins and Jennifer Lopez, settles into the family bosom to take care of Rodriguez. Before the dust has settled, the Mark Taper Forum audience is entertained by nearly three hours of fireworks that begin as soap opera televisionism and rise to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, closing with a Rodriguez soliloquy of almost spectral beauty and magnificence.

It is an enormously satisfying theatrical experience in which Beatriz's remarkable Lydia and Arciniega's equally remarkable cousin provide unconventional and highly provocative pushback against cultural stereotypes and perhaps afford a glimpse into Solis' soul. It also provides a compelling political catharsis, pitting the innocence of youth against the fear of old age -- an explicit cry for help and an implicit demand for respect and opportunity.

The production and the uniformly fine and profoundly engaged acting match the play blow for blow. The result is a bit short on reflection and delicacy, but that might be the point of it all.

The living room in which the firecrackers explode is capable of amazing shifts in personality and emotional temperature. It also accommodates the lighting changes, which accompany the focus to Rodriguez, with nearly seamless mastery. Throbbing music occasionally signals the presence of danger.

Ultimately, Solis keeps to himself his own deepest provocations of plot and character. But none of the characters hesitates to cry out against injustice, or just for the sheer pleasure of the pain.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles (Through May 17)
Cast: Onahoua Rodriguez, Stephanie Beatriz, Carlo Alban, Max Arciniega, Catalina Maynard, Tony Sancho, Daniel Zacapa
Playwright: Octavio Solis
Director: Juliette Carrillo
Scenic designer: Christopher Acebo
Costume designer: Christal Weatherly
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designer: David Molina
Fight choreography: Rick Sordelet