Photo by Christofer Gross/SCRShame on me—a gringo, a bourgeois reared in mostly middle-class suburban neighborhoods populated by similar white-skinned devils—for walking away disappointed and even a touch indignant after watching five short plays by Latino playwrights. But California Scenarios, while ambitious and scenically captivating, is ultimately pretty vacant.
All the elements seem in place for this "original outdoor theater experience" staged in the Noguchi Sculpture Garden a block south of South Coast Repertory: an inspired setting, five talented playwrights and the formidable resources of SCR. But the plays don't add up: five plays inspired by a garden imbued with a sense of California, designed to "celebrate the even larger landscape of Latino life in the Golden State" wind up saying little.
What little the plays do say about the "Latino experience" in Southern California is pretty pedestrian: brown-skinned immigrants have long been victims of racism in California; they undergo great hardship to come to America to work jobs no one else wants; El Torito and Taco Bell aren't authentic Mexican restaurants.
It's a lot of form and precious little content. Thank God the forms work. These are language-oriented playwrights who incorporate poetic imagery, apparitions and mythical motifs into nontraditional structures, some of which fit the short-play format well, while others seem only barely fleshed-out. Anne García-Romero's Desert Longing, about four women who yearn to join the bandit Tiburcio Vasquez in order to taste real adventure, feels too long. Richard Coca's The Hanging of Josefa, about a Mexican immigrant unjustly hanged in 1863, feels too short. Similarly brief is José Cruz González's Odysseus Cruz, about a coyote (a smuggler of humans across the border) forced to atone. Potentially the most interesting of the plays, it's too big for the time slot and ends up feeling like a Cliff's Notes on inhumanity. Only Joann Farías' Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, about a strawberry picker called home by imaginary voices, seems Goldilocks-time perfect.
The piece that stands out, for better and worse, is the nightcap, Luis Alfaro's Gardens of Atzlan. It's the funniest and most topical of the plays, and Alfaro attempts something remarkable: he politicizes the plight of the tortillera. A tortillera who works for the El Torito that looks out onto the Noguchi Sculpture Garden gets fed up with the way that her labors of love are devoured by her uncaring customers. She escapes and finds three other like-minded tortilla rollers who have fled similarly stultifying situations at Taco Bell, Del Taco and La Salsa. Alfaro uses the tortilla to comment on the circle of life: things—life, people, objects—always return to what they were.
Gardens of Atzlan works as art but fails as a statement about Orange County. Characters observe—endlessly—that nothing is authentic in Orange County. The characters yearn to see a real orange, to taste real salsa. Instead, all they see are malls, chain restaurants and toll roads. It's a hackneyed observation about the county—available to anyone in Bumfuck, Idaho, who has ever rented Orange County or driven from Universal Studios to Sea World. It's flaccid. Indelicate. Inane. Easy. Dull. Orange County may look that way at 70 mph from the fast lane of the 5 freeway, but it's certainly not the Orange County you live in. In the end, what's really inauthentic is a play about characters struggling to find authenticity outside themselves. Authenticity is always an inside job.
California Scenarios in the Noguchi Sculpture Garden, behind the Comerica Bank building at 611 Anton Blvd., one block south of South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, (949) 705-5555. Thurs.-Sun., Aug. 1-4, 8 p.m. $10-$25.