Very possibly the silliest play ever, “El Grande de Coca Cola” will have you thinking that you’re suddenly bilingual, even if you’re not.
Through a happy set of coincidences, “El Grande de Coca Cola” has landed at the Ruskin Group Theatre. Namesake artistic director John Ruskin has reunited members of the original stage and production team for a revival and refreshed version of this long-running, widely toured show.
It has a long pedigree, originating 40 years ago in London and becoming a hit at the cutting edge Edinburgh Festival, which showcases new and emerging theatre works. Touring Britain and Holland, the ever-evolving play finally made it to off-Broadway, where (as producer Gil Adler, present for the Ruskin opening night, told me) the actors were nearly prohibited from entering the country the day before the play was to open. Its success led to global touring and helped launched the acting careers of Jeff Goldblum and the late Ron Silver.
“El Grande de Coca Cola” begins with the premise that Don Pepe Hernandez, aka Señor Show Business, played by Ron House (who created the role), wants to produce and host a pop-up cabaret, “Parada de Estrellas” (Parade of Stars), backed by his uncle who runs the local Coca Cola factory in a backwater, south of the border town. But when the international acts don’t materialize, Don Pepe recruits his family to play all the different acts, with hilarious and piteous results.
Before you know it, you’ll realize that the whole play is being performed in Spanish. Well kind of “pigeon” Spanish, with real and Anglicized words, but you understand everything that’s going on; it’s subversively subliminal. Wait until they get to the French, German and Italian!
In addition to the broad and ribald humor, these are physically challenging roles, calling for great athleticism, superb comic timing, coordination and tight choreography, and this production has all that in spades. It’s always funny to see professionals play amateurs, especially when done well and convincingly, which it is here.
The cast is wonderful: Whiny brunette Maria Hernandez (Nina Brissey); seductress blond Consuelo Hernandez (Lila Dupree); mentally challenged Juan Rodriguez (Aaron Jackson); and matinee idol want to be Miguel Vasquez (David Lago) take on ever changing roles as musicians (a riotous Blind Joe Jackson and a German punk rapper), dancers (from tango to hip hop and the flamboyant Los Gigolos), magicians, trapeze artists, a gunslinger, and much more, performing slow motion slapstick, and made-up Coke commercials.
Great costumes, staging and props are masterfully integrated into the mayhem. It’s hard to catch your breath between laughs.
“El Grande de Coca Cola” runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 31 at Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave. at the Santa Monica Airport. Call (310) 397-3244 or visit www.ruskingrouptheatre.com. Bonus? Free parking on site.
Yesterday, today, tomorrow?
“A Parallelogram,” the new hit play onstage at the Mark Taper Forum, gives us a dazzling premise: is our protagonist being advised by her future self, or is she losing her mind?
We’re kept guessing, laughing and marveling at the perfected performances, staging and direction of this intriguing work by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Bruce Norris. “A Parallelogram” is making its West Coast debut, having originated at the highly lauded Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
This staging brings back Anna Shapiro, who directed the Steppenwolf production as well as the Ahmanson Theatre’s production of Norris’ “August: Osage County” in 2009. This staging also features two actors from the original production, Tom Irwin and Marylouise Burke.
There are moments in this play that we’ve all dreamed about doing ourselves: going back in time and fixing the moment when something went wrong. This “instant replay” scenario becomes a central fixture of the action and dialogue, but try as she might, young Bee (Marin Ireland) can’t seem to influence the future.
Bee encounters the future Bee (Marylouise Burke) when her boyfriend Jay (Tom Irwin) accuses her of smoking in their bedroom and she denies it; she’s not smoking, she doesn’t even smoke, yet, it’s the future Bee doing it.
Mirroring each other in the present and in the future, both Bees are sitting in the bedroom playing solitaire and even have the same tattoo, but future Bee is far more cynical than the “good person” young Bee sees in herself and they argue. Young Bee wants to know how things turn out, and future Bee shares bits here and there, including painting the picture of a worldwide pandemic that will leave only a few of the best people alive. And even though she won’t like admitting it, Bee will say, “It’s better.”
Complicating matters is the appearance of the Mexican gardener, JJ (Carlo Alban). Will Bee’s relationship with Jay be upended because of JJ? Is what we see onstage really happening or is it all just a figment of Bee’s imagination?
In a cliffhanging first-act closing, the entire set changes from bedroom to hospital room and the second act shares the possibility that Bee may be suffering from a brain tumor. Future Bee steps into the picture in the guise of a doctor, secretly talking to Bee while Jay is in the room. He can’t hear the epithet that the doctor is hurling at him as present day Bee laughs hysterically in his face.
The play opens with the question, “If you knew in advance exactly what was going to happen in your life, and how everything was going to turn out, and if you knew you couldn’t do anything to change it, would you want to go on with your life?” That’s the underpinning of all the human foibles that transpire in “A Parallelogram.”
Is it time bending or mind bending? Either way, bend your time and open your mind to “A Parallelogram” through Aug. 18 at The Mark Taper Forum, 135 Grand Ave. in downtown L.A. Visit www.centertheatregroup.org or call (213) 628-2772 for tickets and information.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.