‘El Paso Blue’ in long-awaited East Coast Premiere at GALA
It took roughly 20 years for Octavio Solis’ El Paso Blue to make it to Washington, DC.
But now that it has arrived, the play—written and performed entirely in English—is enjoying a rousing reception at GALA Hispanic Theatre, where it has been brought to life under the spellbinding direction of José Carasquillo and a cast of five extraordinary actors.
The story—a retelling of the Oedipus tale among Mexican-Americans along the border—is an ingenious blend of Greek tragedy and Hollywood comedy. Like much of Shakespeare, it is drama heightened by humor, with a lot of clowning around.
The resemblance to Shakespeare—or even Homer—is no coincidence. Octavio Solis, the American-born author of more than two dozen works for the English-language stage, is a lifelong student of the classics who has translated much of mythology into the vernacular of immigrant life. (Click here for my interview with Solis, conducted before the play opened.)
The central character is Al—formerly Alejandro—who is the ultimate prodigal son. Played by Andrés Talero, he is the bad boy who breaks his parents’ hearts by turning his back on their values and the broken dreams that they represent. Instead, he takes up a life of petty crime, bristling with what he thinks is Latino sensuality.
Sylvie, his wife, is equally bad, but blue-eyed and blond, a skimpily-dressed lily-white sexpot who, we learn, was discovered by Al in a sleazy bar where she was singing the blues.
Helplessly spoiled—she is, after all, a former beauty contest winner and the daughter of Republicans—she is ill-equipped to survive on her own when Al finds that he must serve a prison sentence. He literally dumps her on his father’s doorstep. The father accepts her because she can sing.
Veronica del Cerro portrays Sylvie with a wonderful mixture of defiance and self-pity. The scenes in which she spars with the father are among the funniest, yet most poignant, in the play. There is a real chemistry between these two, and so it is no surprise—as we learn from the very beginning—that they will fall in love and run away.
The role of the usurping father is played by Lawrence Redmond, a two-time recipient of the Helen Hayes Award who comes to GALA directly from All the Way at Arena.
Redmond, who was memorable in It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play at Washington Stage Guild, gives a fine performance as the farmer who tills the soil while mourning the death of his wife, 10 years earlier, which he blames on the son who let them both down.
Rounding out the cast are two comics: Bob Sheire is Duane, Al’s buddy, the sidekick who persuades Al to take his prison term, and is then forced to help his friend to track down the missing couple. Duane is the Falstaff of the play and the essence of incompetence.
Alina Collins Maldonado is China, a hilariously funny Mexican woman who hides her sexuality in a poncho. She leads Al and Duane on a tour of El Paso’s netherworld, sniffing out signs of the runaway lovers in all the wrong places.
The two stories—the father and daughter-in-law who fall in love and the three clowns in hot pursuit—are told simultaneously. Scenes alternate between past and present, between the father’s betrayal of the son and the son’s lust for revenge. Eventually they connect.
The single set, designed by Regina García, is dominated by the façade of a rustic wooden cabin which hangs over the stage at a rakish angle. There is a strip of soil, stage front, where the father tills his field.
Lights go on and off behind the windows, signalling changes in time and scene. Lighting Designer Christopher Annas-Lee uses spotlights to focus on the story at hand, while darkness protects those who retreat to the shadows, waiting for the past to catch up with the present.
Robert Croghan has created costumes that identify the characters in a kind of shorthand. The funniest, of course, is China. With her striped poncho and broad-brimmed hat, she looks like a poster for Mexican tourism. She literally wraps herself in her cultural heritage.
Duane, with a kerchief around his neck, is a wannabe cowboy. Al, with his open-necked shirt, is a loser with bravado. Sylvie, whose cut-off shorts reveal as much as her wobbling gait, is the drunk who thinks she’s a princess. And the father, in his peasant garb, is the solid upholder of the past, the farmer who tends his rows of peas and gives Sylvie back her life.
Although not billed as a musical by any means, the sound, designed by Neil McFadden, uses a recorded version of the original tunes composed by Michael “Hawkeye” Herman. The sound provides a mournful accompaniment to the tale, foretelling the inevitabilty of what will come.
Nelly Díaz-Rodriguez is the Stage Manager who keeps the actors moving in their orbits until they collide.
So—why, then, did it take so long for El Paso Blue to get to the east coast?
I asked Director José Carrasquillo, who had first seen the play in 1997 and had been trying to bring it here ever since:
I think it’s because the theatre people were unable to define it. They asked, ‘Is it comedy or tragedy? Musical or drama?’ The answer is it’s all of the above and none of the above.
Luckily, Hugo Medrano, GALA’s Artistic Director, agreed. El Paso Blue is a fitting conclusion to the company’s 40th anniversary season, ¡Viva los 40!
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Note: El Paso Blue is performed in English.
Playwright Octavio Solis on His Play ‘El Paso Blue’ Now Playing at GALA Hispanic Theatre by Ravelle Brickman.