Is “Zoot Suit” L.A.’s “Hamilton?” It’s been extended twice and it just opened. This remarkable revival of a play set in, about and created in L.A. premiered at the Taper nearly 40 years ago and may be more relevant now. It shattered all box office records in 1978 (not in New York, though), was made into a movie, and is on track to becoming a monster hit again.
Zoot Suit is a marvel of music, dance, history, fantasy, myth and politics all rolled up into one grand and irresistible play. The story is based in fact: in the early 1940s, the “Zoot Suit riots”—outpouring of pent-up racism conducted by US servicemen against Mexican Americans—and the murder of a Mexican American man during a party near a reservoir and lover’s lane called Sleepy Lagoon, did actually happen and resulted the roundup, arrest and conviction of 17 Chicano men in a complete travesty of justice.
Playwright Luis Valdez melds the two together, creating the “spirit” character of El Pachuco, a role originated by Edward James Olmos, and played here to perfection by the devilishly handsome Demien Bichir. The lead character, Henry Reyna is perfectly embodied by Matias Ponce. The original Henry, Daniel Valdez, plays Henry’s father in this production, along with Rose Portillo as his mother — she played Della, Henry’s girlfriend, in the original.
Henry is about to join the Marines but instead is accused of murder with nothing but circumstantial evidence, a biased judge and a bully prosecutor, not to mention the tenor of the times, filled with “yellow journalism” fanning the flames of racist anger at Mexicans for taking American jobs (sound familiar?). El Pachuco is many things: narrator, conscience, prod and provocateur as well as jokester but he appears only to Henry and through him run the many strains of contradictory impulses that drive Henry.
The trial is a misbegotten mess, ending in life sentences for all 17; and a committee to defend them is formed. Complications ensue, but ultimately the verdict is overturned. That’s not the end of Henry’s problems. The Zoot Suit riots — so called because the men wore distinctive baggy trousers and oversized jackets during war time, when there was a rationing of wool, and Americans resented them for it — were brutal and hundreds were hurt over a period of days.
From start to finish this play, already a milestone in theatrical history, will prove its timelessness. If opening night is any indicator, it will continue to garner well-deserved standing ovations. See Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum through March 26. If you want tickets don’t wait: (213) 628-2772 or online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
BECKETT AT ITS BEST
Ron Sossi began the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles almost 50 years ago, with the original intent to create an acting ensemble. Now better known as a producing theatre with a regular season and guest productions, with the KOAN Unit, Sossi is returning to the Odyssey’s roots: a core group of actors performing plays that take time and deep understanding.
Such is the case with The KOAN Unit’s “Beckett5,” a set of crystalline-pure evocations of five plays by Samuel Beckett. Three of the actors in Beckett5 — Alan Abelew, Beth Hogan and Norbert Weisser — were original founding members of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.
“Act Without Words II” opens. It’s entirely mimed; two characters, are prodded by a figure in black holding a spear into waking and getting out of the large white sacks in which they are sleeping. Sharing one suit of men’s clothing, shoes and a hat, each begins their day, one taking pills, coughing and unhappily doing what he must to go out into the world while the other accompanied by happy silent film-style music, and is as perky and lively as first person is dull and dark. It’s a great way to start a show; who needs words with this level of acting skill!
“Come and Go” may be only 121 words long but bespeaks a lifetime. Three elderly women on a bench who’ve known each other forever, each ask how the other is doing, and then two at a time share a silent secret that shocks the one being told. This is a little gem.
In “Catastrophe” a dictatorial director and harassed assistant are staging an old man on a platform in a spotlight; he’s wearing only pajamas with bare feet and a bandage on his head. The director shouts orders, the assistant scurries around to make adjustments to the immoveable man, but at the end with eyes cast down, he looks out at us. It’s haunting.
Speaking of haunting, “Footfalls” is exactly that. A woman paces back and forth on a wooden platform in a nightgown in dim light, with a door slightly ajar with a faint hint of light to indicate there might be another person involved. May is the pacer; is her mother alive or only in her head? We hear her voice and May quotes her but maybe neither of them are really there. It’s a mysterious piece.
Lastly, “Krapp’s Last Tape” is simply brilliantly played by Norbert Weisser. A man who once thought he’d find something better around the corner reviews his now isolated and empty life listening to old tapes of himself, about the lost love he let go.
Beckett would have been proud. See this before it goes away; Beckett5 runs through March 5; call (310) 477-2055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications. Contact her at email@example.com.
ZOOT Demian Bichir in the revival of “Zoot Suit.” Written and directed by Luis Valdez and presented in association with El Teatro Campesino. Photo by Craig Schwartz.