Call it the most ambitious theater initiative in Orange County history. The most striking community outreach in Orange County cultural history. An ode to the turbulent, dense, culturally diverse city of Santa Ana.
It's all those things, but in its premiere performance,The Long Road Today/El Largo Camino de Hoy is also something else: realllllly long.
Clocking it at about two hours and 40 minutes (about twice the time listed in the program) the length isn't terminal. There's enough going on in this movable feast–from dance and music to puppets and video projections–to hold your interest. But considering the audience is split into four groups and travels across a good chunk of Santa Ana's civic center to four site-specific areas, where four scenes are enacted, there's an awful lot of moving and standing around (unless you were one of the lucky few to get the memo to bring your own folding chair).
Then again, when a play takes a year to write, when more than nearly 1,000 people are interviewed, and their cumulative recollections and insights are distilled into a play, it's a monumental task keeping things concise.
A co-production of South Coast Repertory and the Santa Ana-based Latino Health Access, the bi-lingual production is a combination of the staggering resources from an internationally acclaimed regional theater and the grassroots stories from people from all walks of Santa Ana life. The process began a year ago, as playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez, producing associate Sara Guerrero, director Armando Molina and a host of other theater professionals sat down and talked to Santa Ana residents, staged workshops and basically welcomed the community into the creation of a play that reflected their concerns.
The result is a frenetic combination of slick theater and guerrilla staging and lofty poetry and symbolism with quite common, if universal, issues.
The story is of two families torn asunder by a shared tragedy after a teen-age boy kills a younger boy in a traffic accident. Salvador (Bryan Alejandro Perez), the older one, flees the scene and is prosecuted as an adult, landing in prison for 20 years. His family has to deal with the shame, guilt and incarceration of Salvador while the family of the dead boy has its obvious issues to deal with.
While the effects on the families are important: one father becomes a homeless drunk; a mother doesn't leave her house for months, etc, the more urgent question is how the community responds to the tragedy. It does so through different ways, with each track (or series of four vignettes) ultimately ending with the positive steps the community takes to repair and connects itself, either through faith, planting a community garden, or simply talking, rather than isolating themselves or turning away.
While that's the basic plot, there's nothing basic about this production. The form of the show emulates a real-life Loteria, a Mexican game of chance played with playing cards rife with symbolism. The cards, as playwright Gonzalez says in the production notes are "simple, elegant cards that carry history, a sense of community and a strong visual component."
He infuses the sense of those cards, and the game of chance, into his entire play. The audience assembles in a parking lot of the Santa Ana Civic Center Plaza and after a short-and-meet greet, the play begins setting up the auto fatality. The crowd then follows one of four guides (their programs tell them which one they're assigned to) based on four of the Loteria decks' cards: El Diablito, a feisty, red-clad Angela Apodaca; La Dama, a more dignified and virginal-like Jeannette Franco;, La Muerte, the wise-cracking personification of death Daniel Chacon; and El Valiente, a courageous Che Guevera like Jorge Flores
Each of the four groups then follows their guide to their first spot, after which they are escorted to the next site, helmed by the next character.
In short, everyone sees the same play, but in a different sequence. That might account for some of the extra time, as shepherding four groups of about 50 people across the Civic Center takes a little bit of work, and there were plenty of logistical hiccups the first night.
Each track incorporates four scenes.The most visually arresting is La Muerte's as some fascinating puppet work courtesy of Sean Cawelti and Estela Garcia is featured. El Valiente's track tells Salvador's story using video projections courtesy of Tom Ontiveros. He begins the track a confused, helpless imprisoned teen-ager and ends it reborn spiritually, and determined to share what he has learned in jail with his community upon his release.
The most arresting track, however, is that of La Dama's. For one of the few times in the proceeding, the play feels its most human and immediate even though, strangely, it is filled with zombies and personifications of the moon. But in a small sewing circle of women, Socorro, (Maria Elena Serratos) the mother of Salvador takes her first tentative steps to try to connect with her community, only to run into the mother of the dead boy. El Diablito's track seems the most superfluous, particularly her story but, admittedly, it was the last track this old curmudgeon experienced, and interest was waning by that point.
After each group's last track, they assemble in a large, flat part of the plaza and the epilogue concludes the play, with a rousing musical performance led by music coordinator Moises Vazquez (the music of the play, which features everything from acoustic guitarists to accordion players, may be the best part of this production).
By play's end, you've encountered many characters and heard many stories but it's clear that while this tale of two families and their surrounding community is the main thrust, The Long Road Today/El Largo Camino de Hoy is really a story about Santa Ana, its past, present and a possible future.
While there are allusions to gangs, crime, alcoholism, ghetto birds and homelessness, this is less a story about Santa Ana's warts than the very real people who live, love, work, succeed and suffer. And if there's an overriding message to the play it's that a community falls alone or stands together.
Catch The Long Road Today at Santa Ana Civic Center Plaza, 400 W. Civic Center Dr., Santa Ana. Fri-Sun., 8 p.m. Free.