Stage 2 does it again…

I took a drive on Saturday evening up to Pacifica to watch my friend Sam V. perform in a play that I had never hear of before meeting him.  He was a cast member of “Bless Me, Ultima” and was nice enough to do a brief interview for my podcast.  You can hear him on Episode 17.  He said the story was an incredibly moving one and boy was it ever.

Silvia Gonazales S. has written a script that is based on actual events and I was astonished at how absolutely relevant it is in today’s political climate.  With immigration reform being such a hot button issue, the timing of producing this play couldn’t have been better.  When I read the synopsis of the play on her website, I thought “My, my, my, this is gonna be one heavy play.”  But as I watched, I don’t feel like what her site described was the same play.  The core of the story was the same, but in a more scaled back and intimate way.

Boxcar (El Vagon) is the story of 4 Mexican men and 1 El Salvadorian student that are trying to make it to the U.S.  The men are locked in an airtight boxcar at the beginning of the show and slowly we watch as their time inevitably runs out.  For the Mexicans, their journey is to find work.  For the El Salvadorian, his journey is for asylum.  But in truth all 5  people are on this path for hope. As the story unfolds, the Mexican men are really only trying to provide a better life for their families back home.  Finding a job in the States in order to send money to their families back home is such a high priority for these people, and I found that admirable.  Thinking back on the show, though, I cannot recall what the student is hoping to achieve.  He is forced to leave home by his mother after the murder of his father.  Is he going to be seeking justice for his father? Is his goal simply to hide? I am still unsure.  Did I miss something?  (That’s totally possible.)  Four of the men don’t survive the trip, and the one that lives is questioned by the authorities.

The play opens with a brutal but brief assault on Noel (Sam Valenzuela), a young El Salvadorian anthropology student.  After the blackout that follows, we meet Manuel (Ramon Bustos), a Mexican man trying to make it into the U.S.  He has been stopped 9 times by border policeman Roberto (Steve Ortiz), but swears it’s been “much less than that.”  Roberto’s partner, Bill (Gary Pugh-Newman) is not one to allow “these kind of people” into the country and takes his job with the utmost seriousness.  As the conversation in the scene builds, Manuel essentially says to Roberto, “why are you giving me such a hard time when I just want to be able to make a living just like you.  You, who are the same origin as me, a fellow Latino.”  This gets Roberto thinking.  In the blackout that followed, the stage curtains part and reveal a boxcar interior.  On the far side of stage left, a single wooden chair is slightly downstage of a multi drawer white filing cabinet.  When the lights focus on stage left, the border police enter with Noel and begin to ask him what happened in the boxcar to lead to the death of the others.  While Noel refuses to talk to the authorities, he remembers and the lights switch focus to the boxcar.  The rest of the play is told in this way through Noel’s memories as he sits terrified, waiting to be deported.

While this play has a serious message, it’s expertly written with several comedic moments in the first half as we get to know and like the characters.  Then, in what is the second half of the play, your heart races as these characters slowly and intensely suffocate.  During the last fifteen minutes of the show, nearly every nose in the audience was experiencing the sniffles.  I stole a few glances at my fellow audience members and saw many tear filled eyes and hands clutching tissues, ready to dab at that unruly nose or leaky eye.

Silvia Gonzalez S. doesn’t shy away from the issue of immigrant exploitation and the shameless way America disregards the working class folk who have made this country what it is.  During one of my favorite moments of the show, Roberto and Bill are arguing about the exploitation of immigrant people and he tells the story of the Chinese Americans that worked on the railroad from one coast while some of the laborers worked on it from the other and met up in the middle.  When you look for any pictures of that glorious moment when all that hard work reaches its achievement, who do you see? Not the people who put blood and sweat into it.

courtesy of http://www.sdrm.org

 Nope, you see a bunch of well to do men in suits setting a sledge-hammer on the final spike, The Golden Spike.  I have to admit that I felt ashamed.  Then Roberto goes on to say that we take advantage of them because we can pay them less knowing that they can’t complain about it to the authorities. So they get advised to go to get government aid because they are making such little money.  Yet we complain that they use it.  They live in cramped apartments because that’s the only way to keep a roof over their head.  (That one made me feel guilty for laughing at jokes about those situations.)  During a monologue, he says “When I see those callused hands, I know that they are only coming here to work.” I just loved that line.

In the end, Roberto and Noel leave the boxcar.  Did they leave together in solidarity?  Did Roberto just give up this kind of life?  Did Noel actually make it?  It’s a typical open-ended finale for this type show, so that people can talk about it and make their own choices on what they hope came to pass.

 The only things that I would hope to be adjusted by this weekend’s performances would be the transitions from scene to scene when there’s a  blackout with music, and the character of Bill crying in a scene toward the end of the show.  There are I believe 4 blackouts that happen and they have a music cue added to them. I don’t know why, but it felt like there is a long time that I was sitting there waiting for the next scene to begin.  It could have just been me, I will totally admit that.  So for the character of Bill to cry…hmm…When his partner Roberto is giving this great argument about America being the land of hope and the model country of the world, Bill is crying in the background.  I don’t mean like he’s sobbing like a kid who’s doggie just got run over.  It’s a silent cry, but for this hard ass, by the book, I-ain’t-losing-my-job-cuz-I-need-it S.O.B., I found it took me out of the play and made him seem inauthentic. I can understand that the actor may want to show that the character isn’t such a bad guy. This isn’t the way to do that.  I would rather have preferred a gentle hand on the shoulder, or a some other small motion of friendship.  The crying was just too much.

All that aside, the cast is very good with some outstanding performances by Sam Valenzuela and also Glen Caspillo as Pepe, who was an artist on that stage, and Jason Bustos as Huero.  Sam’s dual performance as the frightened young student at the deportation office and the friendly, nervous traveling guy was well thought out and believable.  If I had to give a suggestion for him, I’d say don’t shake so much when you meet Manuel in the boxcar. ;-).  Mr. Caspillo is a wonder to watch.  The moment that he entered, he drew you in.  Even when he was dead, I found myself looking over at him.  Mr. Bustos had a big brash character that demanded a big personality to truly bring Huero to life which he accomplished easily.  There were a few moments where he would turn in a way that I thought would be counter intuitive, but it must not have been that big of a deal, since I don’t remember the details.

It’s hard to describe the emotional ride I went on as I witnessed this smart and inspiring play.  Should you see it?  HELL YEAH!

But you have to see it this weekend as Sunday, May 8 is their final show! Remember, since this is a Stage 2 Production, the show is free, but give yourself some karma points by dropping a few bucks in their donation bucket.

Check here for the details of the show!

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Just Announced…The 2011 Tony Award Nominations!!

Book of Mormon leads the nominations with 14!!

Okay everyone, this is one of the events that I wait for every year!  Here is the full list of the nominees.  If you just want a breakdown of how many each show got, just scroll to the end of the post.

The Tony Awards will be aired on June 12 @ 8:00 PM from their new home in the Beacon Theatre. Drumroll please….

Best Play

Good People
Author: David Lindsay-Abaire

Jerusalem
Author: Jez Butterworth

The Motherf**ker with the Hat
Author: Stephen Adly Guirgis

War Horse
Author: Nick Stafford

Best Musical

The Book of Mormon
Catch Me If You Can
The Scottsboro Boys
Sister Act

Best Book of a Musical

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Alex Timbers

The Book of Mormon
Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone

The Scottsboro Boys
David Thompson

Sister Act
Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

The Book of Mormon
Music & Lyrics: Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone

The Scottsboro Boys
Music & Lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb

Sister Act
Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Glenn Slater

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Music & Lyrics: David Yazbek

Best Revival of a Play

Arcadia
The Importance of Being Earnest
The Merchant of Venice
The Normal Heart

Best Revival of a Musical

Anything Goes
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Brian Bedford, The Importance of Being Earnest
Bobby Cannavale, The Motherf**ker with the Hat
Joe Mantello, The Normal Heart
Al Pacino, The Merchant of Venice
Mark Rylance, Jerusalem

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Nina Arianda, Born Yesterday
Frances McDormand, Good People
Lily Rabe, The Merchant of Venice
Vanessa Redgrave, Driving Miss Daisy
Hannah Yelland, Brief Encounter

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Norbert Leo Butz, Catch Me If You Can
Josh Gad, The Book of Mormon
Joshua Henry, The Scottsboro Boys
Andrew Rannells, The Book of Mormon
Tony Sheldon, Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Sutton Foster, Anything Goes
Beth Leavel, Baby It’s You!
Patina Miller, Sister Act
Donna Murphy, The People in the Picture

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Mackenzie Crook, Jerusalem
Billy Crudup, Arcadia
John Benjamin Hickey, The Normal Heart
Arian Moayed, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Yul Vázquez, The Motherf**ker with the Hat

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Ellen Barkin, The Normal Heart
Edie Falco, The House of Blue Leaves
Judith Light, Lombardi
Joanna Lumley, La Bête
Elizabeth Rodriguez, The Motherf**ker with the Hat

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Colman Domingo, The Scottsboro Boys
Adam Godley, Anything Goes
John Larroquette, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Forrest McClendon, The Scottsboro Boys
Rory O’Malley, The Book of Mormon

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Laura Benanti, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Tammy Blanchard, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Victoria Clark, Sister Act
Nikki M. James, The Book of Mormon
Patti LuPone, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Best Scenic Design of a Play
Todd Rosenthal, The Motherf**ker with the Hat
Rae Smith, War Horse
Ultz, Jerusalem
Mark Wendland, The Merchant of Venice

Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Beowulf Boritt, The Scottsboro Boys
Derek McLane, Anything Goes
Scott Pask, The Book of Mormon
Donyale Werle, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Best Costume Design of a Play
Jess Goldstein, The Merchant of Venice
Desmond Heeley, The Importance of Being Earnest
Mark Thompson, La Bête
Catherine Zuber, Born Yesterday

Best Costume Design of a Musical
Tim Chappel & Lizzy Gardiner, Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Martin Pakledinaz, Anything Goes
Ann Roth, The Book of Mormon
Catherine Zuber, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Best Lighting Design of a Play
Paule Constable, War Horse
David Lander, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Kenneth Posner, The Merchant of Venice
Mimi Jordan Sherin, Jerusalem

Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Ken Billington, The Scottsboro Boys
Howell Binkley, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Peter Kaczorowski, Anything Goes
Brian MacDevitt, The Book of Mormon

Best Sound Design of a Play
Acme Sound Partners & Cricket S. Myers, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Simon Baker, Brief Encounter
Ian Dickinson for Autograph, Jerusalem
Christopher Shutt, War Horse

Best Sound Design of a Musical
Peter Hylenski, The Scottsboro Boys
Steve Canyon Kennedy, Catch Me If You Can
Brian Ronan, Anything Goes
Brian Ronan, The Book of Mormon

Best Direction of a Play
Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, War Horse
Joel Grey & George C. Wolfe, The Normal Heart
Anna D. Shapiro, The Motherf**ker with the Hat
Daniel Sullivan, The Merchant of Venice

Best Direction of a Musical
Rob Ashford, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Kathleen Marshall, Anything Goes
Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, The Book of Mormon
Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys

Best Choreography
Rob Ashford, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Kathleen Marshall, Anything Goes
Casey Nicholaw, The Book of Mormon
Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys

Best Orchestrations
Doug Besterman, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Larry Hochman, The Scottsboro Boys
Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus, The Book of Mormon
Marc Shaiman & Larry Blank, Catch Me If You Can
Recipients of Awards and Honors in Non-competitive Categories

Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre
Athol Fugard
Philip J. Smith

Regional Theatre Tony Award
Lookingglass Theatre Company (Chicago, Ill.)

Isabelle Stevenson Award
Eve Ensler

Special Tony Award
Handspring Puppet Company

Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre
William Berloni
The Drama Book Shop
Sharon Jensen and Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts

Tony Nominations by Production
The Book of Mormon – 14
The Scottsboro Boys – 12
Anything Goes – 9
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – 8
The Merchant of Venice – 7
Jerusalem – 6
The Motherf**ker with the Hat – 6
The Normal Heart – 5
Sister Act – 5
War Horse – 5
Catch Me If You Can – 4
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo – 3
The Importance of Being Earnest – 3
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – 3
Arcadia – 2
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – 2
Born Yesterday – 2
Brief Encounter – 2
Good People – 2
La Bête – 2
Priscilla Queen of the Desert – 2
Baby It’s You! – 1
Driving Miss Daisy – 1
The House of Blue Leaves – 1
Lombardi – 1
The People in the Picture – 1

 Did any of these shock you?  Were you surprised that anyone wasn’t on this list?  Were you surprised they were?  Let me hear ya!