Addickatted to Words
Like a strobe light beaming across a Bronx ghetto neighborhood, Boogie Rican Boulevard (La Tea Theater) picks out the locals hanging around one bodega—and the family that runs it. The dynamo generating this glow, writer-performer Caridad De La Luz, struts exultantly to a Latin tempo as she morphs from flirty teenager to doting grandpa to macho rapper in this exuberant one-woman show.
In Puerto Rico, Don Jose dreamed of playing baseball, but in New York he fell in love and into the bodega business, and fathered three girls. The eldest, Lola, hangs out on the street trying to score her daily fix; the middle sister, Cuca, got knocked up by her would-be-rapper boyfriend Pito; giggly young Maribella sets out to get the cool guys—without making the same mistakes.
An HBO Def Jam poet, De La Luz serves up breathlessly paced, peppered-with-Spanish monologues. Her Maribella, stepping into her platforms, lifting her boobs high, and practicing “the look,” percolates with a naive joy. Shifting to a rap cadence as feckless Pito, she vibrates macho, mock-pleading with passing babes: “Let me kick it to you./Got the type of flow you get addickattedcq to.” Shot down, he complains, “Damn chicks be ackin’ like they got diamonds on their nipples and shit.” In one sobering portrait, the performer scratches and twitches as Lola offers her body for a fix.
The author’s intoxication with words and rhythm permeates her characters. Whether they’re good or bad poets, they versify to lift themselves up and out. Poor, pregnant Cuca, still pining for Pito, writes and recites, “Me the poet and you rhyming, I even let you take my hymen.” One figure, a fortune-teller, chants feverish, provocative permutations on WTC: “Watched towers crash/Wishes turned cloudy/Whispered to Christ . . . ”
Exploiting the performer’s gift for song and movement, whether lithe, sexy, or jerky comic, Nelson Vasquez directs with verve. The music lends a pulse and, at times, a witty aside, as when flamenco wails softly to Lola’s strung-out whine.
With her keen sense of this urban scene, De La Luz gets the atmosphere and details right. But at times she veers close to stereotype, and her material feels thin. Each portrait seems a cameo rather than an interlocking piece of a complex whole. Her Don Carlos, a benevolent old man with a stoop, sums up his daughters, a bit sadly: “They are all different, pero I love them the same.” You can’t help feeling there’s a richer and deeper family story that’s not being plumbed. Still, the multi-talented De La Luz overflows with such affection for her people, and she projects so much charisma, that she makes you want to dance to her beat. —Francine Russo
Pop Shop on the Deuce
In 1899, the critic Edwin Royle wrote, “Vaudeville may be a kind of lunch-counter art, but then art is so vague and lunch is so real.” For a decade before and at least two decades after Royle penned his quip, this lunch-counter art held the prime stool of American popular entertainment. Dozens of vaudeville theaters dotted Manhattan alone, and each borough could claim several more. Cheerfully materialistic, they aimed to give the audience what it wanted, and as the vaudeville audience encompassed an encouraging range of ages, races, and classes, that demanded variety. Though neighborhood and ticket price determined the bill somewhat, each theater boasted an array of balladeers, classical dancers, animal acts, acrobats, musicians, comedians, and soubrettes.
Film and other cultural institutions—the rise of Broadway among them—pushed vaudeville at first aside and then off the map entirely. But the organizers of the Palace of Variety don’t want to let it disappear completely. Housed on 42nd Street, where vaudeville once reigned supreme, the storefront Palace features a museum of deceased entertainments. Photos and artifacts adulate burlesque, minstrelsy, and sideshow. The theater proper advertises another museum piece—a re-creation of vaudeville performance entitled The Golden Age.
Actually it’s false advertising. The Golden Age, conceived and directed by Joel Jeske, doesn’t so much preserve or pay tribute to vaudeville as entrap it in a pair of painfully ironic quotation marks. The show features a sextet of stock characters as they aim to put on a show. Impresario, assistant, prima donna, ingenue, interloper, and audience participant muddle their way through a series of sketches and dances. But the acts continually fall victim to backstage antics. Some of the infighting amuses, especially the physical comedy—a man socked in the face by a two-by-four may never cease to wring a smile. However, the show would benefit if the performers could stop poking fun at the songs and sketches and actually perform them. In the precious few moments that are played straight, the jokes and lyrics radiate a sturdy, if corny, charm.
Perhaps, instead of winking, The Golden Age might instead have taken a hard look at some of vaudeville’s knottier aspects. Absent are the wealth and complexity of racial depictions that dominated the stage. (In vaudeville, Italians often played conniving Jews, Jews played rancorous Irishmen, and the Irish, in blackface, played clownish African Americans.) Also, The Golden Age‘s cast contents itself with simply repeating and accepting gender stereotypes—and gender’s actually one of the areas where some quotation marks wouldn’t hurt. The Golden Age won’t offend, but it certainly won’t interest either. Get the hook! —Alexis Soloski