Breath of Fire, Breath of Life
Those seeking ontological proof of redemption—at least in terms of playwrighting—need look no further than Juan Ramirez's Guilt Anthology.
Though both draped in Catholic vestments—particularly Catholic guilt—Ramirez's two one-acts couldn't look or sound any more different. The first, the 25-minute Guilty, is theatrical salmonella: nauseatingly undercooked. But even though the curtain raiser is silly and flimsily executed, the show-ending Revelations is serious, impassioned and satisfying. It proves that Ramirez, a gifted actor seen far too seldom on Orange County stages, has ample writing chops.
Guilty, meanwhile, shows that Ramirez knows how to type.
The problem may be that Ramirez and director Anthony Couterié—who play the leads in the second piece—know where the gold in their evening lies and marshal their resources mining that vein. Guilty is a one-joke self-help-meeting spoof hamstrung by impossibly absent direction and performances ranging from competent (Anthony Lucero as the ringleader) to embarrassing (names not included to shield those responsible). It would be more enjoyable if given some high-octane pacing and performers who realize that successful satire is as hard to achieve onstage as it is on the page. (The litmus test? Lester, played by Alan Alda, in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors: If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it's not.)
But stick around. After a 10-minute intermission, we get a real set—and a real show. And one of the most talented actors to spring from Orange County soil in recent years. Ramirez, who dominated Fullerton College playwrights and directors festivals for several recent years, is one of those rare thespians who can convey more in one look than many actors can express in a 500-word monologue.
He plays the lead in Revelations, a human-smuggling, guilt-riddled coyote in spiritual crisis desperately seeking meaning from the church he's long abandoned. He pleads, demands and ultimately rejects the spiritual counseling of the young priest (an effective Couterié) helming the desert church he visits, but, as darkness seems to envelop him, a beam of something approaching illumination descends.
Ramirez could easily strip the unnecessary subplots, such as the priest's possible involvement in a child-molestation scandal, and jettison a tacked-on ending that dilutes his climactic scene's power. The theological debate also needs strengthening: Arguing religion is the opiate of the masses isn't exactly groundbreaking rhetoric.
But his performance is so powerfully intense, achingly real and skillfully nuanced that his play stops being a bunch of words spouted by talking heads, becoming instead palpably compelling. Ramirez's performance reveals Guilt Anthology's deeper point. Namely, that as flawed, manipulative and corrupt as organized religion too frequently seems, for the right person at the right time, the path it provides just might offer something in the way of enlightenment, or at least clarity.
Or, to quote a quite-secular religious patriarch (Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter): Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.
Guilt Anthology by the Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble, El Centro Cultural de Mexico, 310 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 540-1157; www.myspace.com/boft. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Nov. 17. $10-$15.
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