Sunday, April 10, 2016

Director Roxanne Tapia Closes Teatro Paraguas' 2015-2016 Season with Comedic Charmer 'Welcome to Arroyo's'

Who's arresting who? Daric Gutierrez playing Officer Derek taking in Amalia (Molly) Arroyo played by Alix Hudson (Photos by Carla Garcia, courtesy of the production)
Even more amusing than swinging a big blunt stick at the head of a Donald Trump piƱata, director Roxanne Tapia's joyful production of Welcome to Arroyo's cracks open Kristoffer Diaz's playful and comedic exploration of (some of the important) edgy divides in Manhattan's Lower East Side Nuyorican culture. Forgive me for being a bit dazzled by the show: I belly-laughed my way through the 90 minutes, which delivered if not Aristotelian catharsis, the kind of relief that can come from laughing oneself silly.

The play is set in 2004, though it's unclear why Diaz picked that year and not another. There's no mention in the play of the main event that year: no reference to the NYPD giving protesters to the Republican Convention a taste of Guantanamo on the Hudson. But it was a year in which there was a marked uptick in the number of Latinos harassed by the NYPD's bogus-to-the-max Stop and Frisk Program. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, 89,937 Latinos were stopped and frisked that year, up from 44,581 in 2003. In 2005 the number would swell to 115,088. In 2006 147,862. The number peaked in 2011, a year in which 223,740 Latinos were stopped and frisked by the NYPD. As law enforcement policy Stop and Frisk was completely illegitimate, and has been acknowledged as such. But as an effective means of social control, huge hassle and painful distraction to Latinos who were losing more and more ground to developers gobbling up prime LES real estate--very effective.

I mention this because early on there's a moment in the play when Diaz's graffiti-art-appreciating NYPD beat cop (played by Daric Gutierrez) busts Amalia “Molly” Arroyo (played by Alix Hudson) for tagging the back of the police station, a provocative grief response to the recent loss of her mother. The nakedly frightened look in Hudson's eyes when he approached her put the truth to those statistics. And the dialogue is informed. Molly's only 18, but clearly she knows the drill:
Officer Derek: Stay right there, drop the can, hands on the wall.

Molly: You're like two steps behind, son. Should be up to frisking me already.

Officer Derek: Are you carrying any weapons and/or narcotics on your person at the current moment?

Molly: You sound all young. And you don't want to frisk me?
Officer Derek: Young lady I understand that you're frightened. You've probably never been in trouble with the law before. But don't worry, it's my job to get you back on the right track.

Molly: You gotta be fucking kidding me.
And then because it's a comedy, they fall in love. And then because it's a fantasy, she punches him out. I don't usually laugh at acts of violence, but I roared at that slug.
Latina cultural historian Lelly Santiago played by Cristina Vigil
Arroyo's has other concerns on its mind—interesting questions about the role of art in the service of strengthening community, about the importance of recovering exemplars of Latina feminist cultural history for a more complete and robust communal identity, about the crucial role of intellectuals in community building, and ultimately about who gets to get their hands on the mic and what do they do with it once they get it?

Tapia makes sure that none of these considerations are overshadowed by the show's party-like atmosphere and improbable love stories. They're integrated into her direction as she deftly moves the characters around the multi-level set she designed with Hudson. Starting with Lelly Santiago played by a bespectacled Cristina Vigil.

Bursting the confines of the proscenium from the get-go, Lelly's practically in the audience herself bursting with excitement at what she's on the verge of discovering. Standing outside of Arroyo's, which until recently was a bodega but is now a bar, she's in a heightened state. In a kind of thrall to the narrative she's spinning in her hopeful imagination, she clues us into what she's investigating—Is an originator of Latin Hip-Hop, a woman named Reina Rey who, Rimbaud-like, vanished from the scene in 1980, the recently deceased mother of Alejandro and Amalia Arroyo? And more personally, was Rey the lady she bought candy from when she was a little girl living in the LES? Are her scholarly worlds and personal worlds about to collide?

These are questions that have all kinds of redemptive possibilities for Lelly who escaped tenement life for the Ivy League and the suburbs, and who now wonders if the skills she's bringing back to Loisada are even welcome at all. Is she a boorish over-intellectualizing intrusive freak, or a talented persistent hands-on cultural historian whose gifts will come to be valued by her former neighbors? Vigil, who recently appeared in the Vortex Theater's production of Bless Me, Ultima, expresses her character's struggle bodily: the lovely young actress becomes in these soliloquies a kind of centaur--half-woman half-thoroughbred filly chomping at the bit, reining herself in, straining against the starting gate of her own high stakes race to clarity.

There's this running joke in the play about the officer who ridiculously is named Derek Jeter (yeah, that's the cop's name, and he's no Yankees fan), and it got me thinking about names: why Welcome to Arroyo's and not Santiago's or Garcia's or Lopez's?
From Wikipedia
Arroyo. It's a gulch, a marker in the dryness where the wet will be when the rains come. But how to bring the rain, or in the case of the bar/lounge, the customers? Trip Goldstein and Nelson Cardenal (played respectively by the superbly comedic Jonathan Harrell and Matthew Montoya making his low-key funny-as-hell Paraguas debut) have the answer—local live performance. Deejaying at Arroyo's...well, it's okay, but these homeboys want to rap. In fact, they want to rap with every fiber of their being, and Tapia makes sure we feel it. Like two school boys squirming in their seats, hands raised and waving down the teacher standing only feet away from them, their irrepressible need to rap has them spinning like the lps on their turntables.

Harrell, who in Arroyo's somehow looks a full decade younger than his actual age, is especially beautiful to watch in this regard--arms in the air, torso twisting, dancing to the art form his character passionately wants to be part of. His control over the volume and speed at which the outrageous jokes issue from his fresh mouth lands somewhere between the borders of impressive and phenomenal. Whooosh, whooosh, the words come flying out through his smile, and astonishingly are always intelligible. He doesn't just talk fast, he communicates fast, and the show wouldn't be half as much fun were he not in it.
Matthew Montoya, Jonathan Harrell and Rick Vargas
Matthew Montoya plays Nelson as Trip's affable more subdued partner who nonetheless wins his share of laughs. There's a bit when he flicks the lights on and off to pretend they have strobe effects. It's funny but telling—Nelson will make do with whatever he's got to work with, but oh he wants more. But Trippy Trip and Nelly Nel are up against Alejandro's closed-mindedness, and they can't budge him from his magical thinking and the mantra that affirms it:
Alejandro: A bodega needs to be a bodega. A bar needs to be a bar. We do what we're supposed to do the way we're supposed to do it. The customers will come....It worked for my mother.
Rick Vargas, who was trained in theater at Northwestern, thoroughly embodies Alejandro, the sturdy and dignified barkeep displaced by grief who's struggling to manage this unfamiliar place he's created in a blur in the month since his mother died—is it a bar or a lounge and what the heck's the difference? Fully present, Vargas is an actor's actor who conveys more with the placement of his suspenders than many others do with an entire costume change. The distracted way he handles the receipts as he tries to lose himself in accounting chores lets us know business is not what's primarily on his mind. Contrasted with the very touching moment when he reaches for Lelly in an embrace of acceptance; he enfolds her completely, pulls her to his heart, and they both regain a sense of equilibrium.

He plays Alejandro with an acute sensitivity to the character's condition as a son in the throes of deep loss. He's weighed down by his filial responsibilities; they keep him locked in ritualistic routines of hope. But few customers appear, no matter how briskly he wipes down the bar and polishes the already pristine stemware. He clocks in and out just as his mother did--he's holding a place for her. In time, he'll let it go.
Rick Vargas as good listener Alejandro Arroyo warming to Lelly Santiago played by Cristina Vigil

These serious emotional meanderings through the arroyos of grief and renewal are punctuated by moments of high camp and hilarity. None so much so as when Daric Gutierrez draws his roller brush from his gun holster to aim his desire at Molly's tag on the police station wall. It mimics DeNiro's classic “You looking at me?” moment in Taxi Driver, but it's hysterically funny in its sheer inspired goofiness.

Which brings me to his love object, the rebellious Molly Arroyo played as a hell raiser on steroids in a very fine and moving comedic performance by Alix Hudson. 
Alix Hudson playing Molly talking to her big brother Alejandro played by Rick Vargas
 Hudson, who dyed her hair dark for this role, gives her versatile all: from her perfectly polished Nyurican accent...her full-throated head-thrown-all-the-way-back laugh of sisterly derision...her shoulders-hunched-forward ferocious charging through “the streets” to paint, come what may...the way she holds the can in her almost trancelike, prayerful miming of the act of spraying an imaginary wall...the ardent first kiss instead of a poke in the eye she lays on Officer Derek Jeter --in all of these she breathes puffs of poetic breath into Amalia's contours, and finds (and exposes) the many tender, raw parts of her homegirl's innards, the wounded loneliest places that she's healing in her art. It's a beautiful, striking and vulnerable performance. Somewhere Dionysus is smiling.
Viva Vela!
Tapia's painterly use of color  is subtly sophisticated. Because of the liveliness of her actors one never notices the monochromatic palette until it's replaced with the vivacious brightly-colored panels by muralist Sebastian "Vela" Velasquez, and the vitality that has always been there, hiding in some realm of potentiality, is discovered and revealed.

There's a fantasy scene in which Reina Rey (also played by Hudson) kicks the boys out of the deejay booth and takes the mic. Tapia's direction here is pared down, minimalist, the action plays out almost in slow motion, relaxed but not casual. When Rey takes the mic it's with a deliberate purposeful sense of inevitability, of cultural history being made even if it remains underground. The moment is now, you were either there or you weren't.

Director Roxanne Tapia has taken the mic. It feels like a fulfillment for Teatro Paraguas, maybe even a turning point. In the program's Director's Notes, she writes:

I love that Arroyo's lounge is a place where the Lower East Side community can come together. A place that unites them and gives them something they can't get anywhere else. Teatro Paraguas is that, here in Santa Fe!

That's it. That's all I got. Enjoy the show!”
Welcome to Arroyo's will play through April 24th, Thursday – Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. At Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie, Santa Fe, NM (505) 424-1602 $18 general, $12 limited income Pay-what you wish Thursdays