Review: Freedom, NY (Teatro Vista)

     
     

Subtle play offers powerful epiphanies of diversity and trust

     
     

(from left) Cheryl Lynn Bruce is Justice Mayflower, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s Freedom, NY.  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

  
Teatro Vista presents
   
  
Freedom, NY
  
  
Written by Jennifer Barclay
Directed by Joe Minoso
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 12  |  tickets: $20-25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

America is always struggling to change immigration into integration. But not all the battles are fought at frontiers. Far from any border patrols and electric fences, Freedom, NY depicts a less violent but more common interracial conflict. Presented with warmth and finally crowned in concord, Jennifer Barclay’s new play focuses on next-door neighbors, two black and one Latino. Here a psychological border, the kind we carry wherever we go, must be overcome before misunderstandings lead to worse.

(from left) Paige Collins is 12-year-old Portia, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays Portia’s grandmother and protector Justice Mayflower, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY." (Photo: Eddie Torres) The play’s divisions between neighbors—and members of minorities–are more mental than physical. On one side Mayflower, a flinty African-American justice of the peace, tends her marigolds and protectively isolates her 12-year-old granddaughter Portia against all adversity. A year ago, a school shooting and a child abduction persuaded Mayflower to cut Portia off from the outside world. (Apparently, Mayflower’s tough-love approach already frightened off her daughter, who fled to Nebraska.)

Symbolizing that outside world is newly arrived Gabriel, a recent immigrant who works as school janitor, hoping to save enough to bring his family from Mexico. Meanwhile, he brightly decorates his bare yard for the “Dia de Los Muertos,” where he will symbolically bury his mother. (She had dreamed of coming to Freedom but wasn’t able to make it alive.)

Telling Gabriel that the neighbors “don’t like how you look,” Mayflower puts up a fence between them as we wonder what it will take to get her to take it down.

The economically written, 80-minute drama depicts how Mayflower, less accepting than curious and pent-up Portia, overcomes her xenophobia and distrust of diversity. She finally realizes that Gabriel is not connected with child abductions or illegal burials. There are no world-shaking revelations here. What we see, honestly and persuasively, are just quiet efforts to preserve decency despite change. These shape the world more than elections or even revolution.

Minoso’s sensitive staging builds tiny epiphanies into moments of truth that cumulatively matter. Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays stubborn but well-intentioned Mayflower with tough tenacity and enough defensiveness to show she’s human beneath her fear. Desmin Borges’ Gabriel, almost too vibrantly colorful for the conditions, brims with open-hearted trust, even as his apostrophes to his dead mother question his stability. Most amazing is the awesomely natural performance of Paige Collins as questioning Portia. She represents America’s future, when we finally prove that, yes, Rodney King, we can all get along.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

(from left) Paige Collins is Portia, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY".  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

Teatro Vista’s Freedom, NY continues through June 12th at their new venue, Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont),  with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors), and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online at teatrovista.org. Freedom, NY runs approximately 75 minutes.      All photos by Eddie Torres.

  
  

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Review: Do the Hustle (Writers’ Theatre)

     
     

Creating despicable characters we could care less about

     
     

Patrick Andrews and Francis Guinan in Brett Neveu's  'Do the Hustle' at Writers' Theatre

  
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Do the Hustle
  
Written by Brett Neveu
Directed by William Brown 
at
Writers’ Theatre, Glencoe (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A father and son scuffle over a cup of hot chocolate. The boy walks out in a rage. The cashier bonds with the dad over tough parenting. In response, the father pulls a fast one and steals $10. Writers’ Theatre presents the world premiere of Do The Hustle. Eddie is teaching Sam the family business. The mark, the build-up, the take, father teaches his son the important elements of the perfect con. The duo executes a progression of swindles to get to the big pay off. The scamming hits close to home when the rip-offs get personal. Who is zooming who? Do The Hustle is a series of dark, biting stings that swell into a big ouch.

Patrick Andrews, Karen Janes Woditsch and Francis Guinan - Brett Neveu's 'Do the Hustle' at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.Playwright Brett Neveu penned a chain of seedy intrigues. Playing the audience, the con within the con within the con surprises and baffles. How did they do that? The repeated dialogue is authentically redundant and natural family-speak. The dysfunctional relationship between father and son is well-established. The missing nut in this shell game is the connection. Neveu has created truly flawed characters. They are distinct and despicable. But Neveu comes up short on the big score by cheating the audience of a person to care about. It is no “catch me if you can’ – “the dirty rotten scoundrels” run “the sting” under a “paper moon.” The con artist can be an endearing good bad guy! The double-dealing father, the scheming son, the bitchy grandma, the addict mom: whether they are the confidence men, shills or victims, no one bamboozles empathy.

Under the direction of William Brown, the long con is paced dynamically. Set-ups transition into the next with movable doors (scenic designer Kevin Depinet) that illustrate the location. Andrew Hansen (sound designer) aids in the placement with doors opening to street noises. With minimal furnishings and props, the door generated sounds set the scene. The focal point is the action. And Brown directs it to loathsome heights. Francis Guinan (Eddie) is perfect as a fast-talking louse. Patrick Andrews (Sam) acts out cons of cons with masterful earnest but malicious intent. Joe Minoso and Karen Janes Woditsch excel in multiple roles. Minoso goes from invalid to pawn to rifleman with extensive versatility. Woditsch plays shrew from every angle. The cast is wonderful! I just don’t like any of them. In the end, Do The Hustle had a great beat but I couldn’t dance to it.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Patrick Andrews, Francis Guinan, Joe Miñoso and Karen Janes Woditsch - 'Do the Hustle' by Brett Neveu at Writers' Theatre.

Do the Hustle continues Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 2pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 6pm, with performances occurring at Writer’s Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe.  For more info, visit www.writerstheatre.org.

Running Time: One hundred and five minutes with no intermission

  
  

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REVIEW: 26 Miles (Teatro Vista and Rivendell Ensemble)

‘26 Miles’ is quite the trip!

 

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Teatro Vista and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble present
   
26 Miles
   
Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Tara Mallen
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through November 21  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

The distance between Philadelphia and Wyoming is 1,835 miles. The distance between a mother and daughter is further away and closer than that. Teatro Vista and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble present the Midwest premiere of 26 Miles by Tony-Award winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes. Quirky teenager Olivia runs away from her dad’s house. She is assisted in the escape by her mother. After throwing up fifteen times, Olivia is desperate for someone to care. She calls her biological mother, Beatriz, who had given up custody and visitation rights eight years earlier. In fact, 26Miles6282according to Olivia’s journal log, Beatriz hasn’t spoken to her daughter in five months. A spontaneous road trip to see buffalo becomes a journey of self-realization for mother and daughter. With a jamming 80’s soundtrack, 26 Miles is a trip of discovery that takes some surprising turns.

Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes doesn’t rush to the destination. Hudes allows the characters to continue to identify themselves right up until the show comes to a complete stop. The mother-daughter duo drives the experience perfectly. Ashley Neal (Olivia) is hilarious as the creative philosophical teenager. She muses her journal thoughts out loud with “note: do I believe in…” She publishes a magazine. Neal is that high school geek that is too smart to fit in. Her animated face adds another layer of humor to her stellar performance. Sandra Marquez (Beatriz) is the feisty Cuban mother. Marquez rages with impulsiveness. Unlike Neal’s character, Marquez is not easily recognizable. As the M.I.A. mom, Marquez has to work extra hard to win the audience over. Marquez commits for the long haul! She faces the situation with wise resignation of ‘it’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s like erosion. It just is.’ Keith Kupferer (Aaron) and Edward Torres (Manuel) are the guys that cause the gals to run. They take a back seat to the mother-daughter bonding. Although their supporting roles are important, it’s their amusing scene transition antics that are most memorable.

 

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Director Tara Mallen has mapped the journey with purposeful appeal. Mallen doesn’t settle with poignant performances by a talented cast. She adds in paper flying, music blaring and Blues Brothers’ scene transitions. The extras provide the scenic route on what could be a long road trip. The scenery itself also supplies a subtle layer of storytelling. The set, designed by Regina Garcia, has a slanted floor with suspended stairs that don’t quite connect. The backdrop is a snippet of Olivia’s journal with pictures and words. It’s a trip! Teatro Vista and Rivendell travel well together; all the parts work together for high performance. It’s the truly collaborative effort that catapults 26 Miles to go the distance.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
    

26 Miles plays every Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm through November 21st.  Running time is 90-minutes with no intermission.

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REVIEW: The Sins of Sor Juana (Goodman Theatre)

No justice for Sor Juana

 

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Goodman Theatre presents
  
The Sins of Sor Juana
  
By Karen Zacarías
Directed by
Henry Godinez
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
Through July 25   |  
Tickets: $20–$71   |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Although she is celebrated in Latin America and Spain as one of the great poets of the Spanish Golden Age, little is really known of the life of 17th-century writer and protofeminist Juana In´s de la Cruz. What is known is that she was a remarkable figure for her time — illegitimate, brilliant, accomplished and, for a time, a favorite of the viceroy’s court in Mexico City.

Production_12 At 19, she unaccountably entered a convent, where she spent the rest of her life. The likeliest speculation as to why supposes that she saw it as her best means of conducting a scholarly life — which it was, until her opinionated writings on the rights of women to education fell afoul of the Church and attracted the attention of the Spanish Inquisition. However, no one actually knows what drew Juana to take vows.

In The Sins of Sor Juana, the disappointing centerpiece of Goodman Theatre’s fifth biennial Latino Theatre Festival, playwright Karen Zacarías speculates it was an unhappy love affair. While Sor Juana’s many passionate love poems suggest she might have had illicit lovers, the play’s emphasis on an entirely fabricated and uninspiring love life turns de la Cruz from an extraordinary intellectual and advocate for women to a sappy Silhouette heroine.

In this production, she isn’t even a very effective romance heroine. Scenes between Malaya Rivera Drew, as Juana, and Dion Mucciacito, as Silvio, the handsome scoundrel she falls in love with, fall flat as soggy tortillas — no chemistry whatsoever. There’s more sizzle between Drew and Tony Plana, who plays Juana’s father confessor, although whether we’re supposed to imagine an other than intellectual and religious relationship in that case is more than I can tell.

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Amy J. Carle gives a spunky performance as the upright Sor Sara, bent on bringing Sor Juana to proper nunlike humility. She’s less successful as Juana’s protector, the vicereine, who also has a crush on the young scholar — a fact we’re told by another character rather than shown by any yearning exhibited by Carle.

Zacarías revised her 15-year-old play for the Goodman’s production, supposedly putting more emphasis on the mature Sor Juana, yet that just creates an uneven balance between anguished convent scenes and the cartoonish, cliche-ridden  comedy of the central melodrama, which features out-and-out slapstick from Joe Minoso as the foppish courtier Don Pedro and an evil Production_08scheme hokey enough for a Dudley Do-Right episode.

In another off-kilter element, Laura Crotte puckishly plays Juana’s mystical Mayan maidservant, Xochitl, as well as the Mother Superior of the convent, a conflation oddly emphasized by the director although not reinforced by the plot. Xochitl, whose presence is sometimes actual and sometimes imaginary, adds an intriguing but distracting element of magical realism that Godinez promotes yet which Zacarías barely touches on.

Distractions also extend from Todd Rosenthal‘s large and otherwise lovely set. The pillared setting segues beautifully from austere convent to viceroy’s palace, but continual scene changes involving furnishings rising from below stage or dropping from the fly space begin to seem if they were designed more to showcase the theater’s capabilities than to enhance the drama.

Sor Juana’s story is worth telling and its gaps worth speculating on, but in this piece she’s far more sinned against than sinning.

  
   
Rating: ★½
  
  

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REVIEW: Welcome to Arroyo’s (American Theatre Company)

Arroyo’s could use a remix

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American Theatre Company presents
 
Welcome to Arroyo’s
 
by Kristoffer Diaz
directed by
Jaime Castaneda
at ATC, 1909 W. Byron
(map)
thru May 16th  |  tickets: $35  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there was any winner coming out of the recent Pulitzer prize controversy (besides the actual winner, Next to Normal), it would be American Theatre Company. In case you are an actual person and not addicted to theatre blogosphere chatter, basically the Pulitzer Board awarded the prize to a piece that wasn’t a finalist recommended by the Drama Jury. The Jury did, however, recommend Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, (our review ★★★½) which enjoyed plenty of praise for its world premier at Victory Gardens here in Chicago last summer (and I’m kicking myself for missing).

arroyos-dj Why does ATC come out on top? Because months ago, they scheduled the world premier of Diaz’s first play, Welcome to Arroyo’s, therefore serendipitously landing upon a bunch of free publicity. And the opening Monday was buzzing with anticipation—perhaps expectations were too high. While Diaz’s earliest play is tons of fun, it is clearly a stepping stone.

Set in 2004 New York City, the play wanders between three plotlines. Mostly, it follows the trials of green entrepreneur Alejandro Arroyo (the gruff but lovable Joe Minoso) as he tries to attract customers to his brand new bar, transformed from his late mother’s bodega. We also watch his sister Amalia (Christina Nieves) practice and protect her art: graffiti. A romantic yet hostile spark flashes between her and, ironically, a police officer (Edgar Miguel Sanchez). Lastly, Lelly Santiago (Sadieh Rifai) complicates everything with her tireless search for a mythic founder of hip hop, Reina Rey—a Puerto Rican woman who might have very intimate connections with the Arroyos.

Diaz’s problem is that neither of these stories have a whole lot of forward motion. In theory, each of the subplots is powerful and thought-provoking, but the play is spread too thin among the three. No through-line has much momentum on its own, and they don’t really push each other that far. Lelly’s pursuit, for example, is engaging, but unfocused. I was never quite sure what she actually wanted or what was in her way. And once Lelly and Alejandro meet up, Diaz’s dialogue falls into a metaphysical hole, becoming far too abstract to keep audience along.

Arroyo’s momentum is ferociously spun forward by the antics of Jackson Doran and GQ, who save the play from drowning in headiness. Respectively playing Trip and Nelson, Arroyo’s in-house MCs, these two serve as narrators, commentators, characters, and clowns. They keep the work fun and fresh with their theatrical hijinks, and they could’ve been used even more.

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Even if the play isn’t that brilliant, director Jaime Castaneda and cast do their best to keep the production’s flow swift and funky, like any good hip hop cut. Minoso can be almost childlike in his portrayal of Alejandro, but he keeps his wits about him, especially when he’s interacting with Trip and Nell. Nieves, though sometimes grating, is fun to watch and brings plenty of swagger. Rifai’s Lelly is the least believable, partly due to Diaz’s shaky writing and partly because of Rifai’s overcompensation.

Yes, I’m a white kid from rural Michigan, but I love my hip hop. This is why I was probably so attracted to Diaz’s attention to urban bravado. Arroyo’s is slick, but not afraid to get goofy. Keith Pitts’ stylish set definitely helps. The play has some crucial errors, but it’s a great ride. Diaz and Castaneda have hit on something, they just need to clarify, streamline, and remix. ATC have landed in buzzworthy territory, but the end product calls for some polishing.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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REVIEW: American Theatre’s “Its a Wonderful Life”

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American Theatre Company presents:

It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play

Adapted from the film by Frank Capra
Screenplay written by
Goodrich, Hackett, Swerling and Capra
Based on a short story by
Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by
Jason Gerace
Thru December 27th  (ticket info)

reviewed by Katy Walsh

microphone “Man’s suicide thwarted on Christmas Eve” sounds like a newspaper headline, not the premise of a holiday tradition. In American Theatre’s 8th-annual production, Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, based on the book The Greatest Gift, is re-imagined on stage as a radio play. Though most have seen the movie, the story deals with a distraught businessman George Bailey who eventually considers killing himself so his family may benefit from a life insurance policy. Clarence, angel second class, tries to earn his wings by helping George understand significance of his life. Performed in 80 minutes without an intermission, American Theatre Company’s It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play is a nicely wrapped holiday gift.

It could possibly be said that Wonderful Life is the original dramedy. The plot is Hollywood’s schmaltzy tragedy with a “feel good” happy ending. Within the story of a suicide attempt, the Capra team has created strong characters delivering memorable lines. “Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?”, “Youth is wasted on the wrong people.”, “No gin tonight, son!”, “Get me…I’m giving out wings.”, “Excuse me! Excuse me! I burped!”, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” and the ever powerful, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” The timeless lines invoke the familiar swirl of sentimental tears and chuckles.

Starting with this strong, beloved script, director Jason Gerace adds a cast of nine members to perform the Christmas classic. The stage is the broadcast room at radio station WATC. The radio announcer (Alex Goodrich) begins the show by prepping the studio audience with “on the air” protocols and the importance of the APPLAUSE sign lighting up. Alan Wilder, playing two key roles – Clarence and Mr. Potter, perfectly mimics the original performances of Henry Travers and Lionel Barrymore. As crotchety old Potter, Wilder mockingly delivers, “You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money.”  Later, as Clarence, Wilder innocently requests, “Mulled wine, light on the cinnamon heavy on the cloves. Off with ya lad and be lively!”

Another player that provides dead-on imitations of multiple characters is Jessie Fisher. As man-eater Violet, Fisher seductively says, “What? This old thing? Why I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.” Then Fisher becomes 8 year old Zu-Zu with, “Not a smidge of temperature.” Although Kareem Bandealy is no Jimmy Stewart, his George Bailey gives a complex range of emotions of a dream seeker -small town hero- suicidal- “richest man in Bedford Falls.” Under the well-paced direction of Gerace, the multi-talented cast energetically lassoes the moon.

For a radio play performed as a stage play, the foley artist (the person who creates many of the natural, everyday sound effects for a live radio show) always adds an interesting element of sound production. With this show, this doesn’t seem to be occur. The foley artist (Rick Kubes) is set up on the side of the stage with various tools and techniques to add the sounds to the radio broadcast. Plunging in the river, clattering dishes, blizzard winds – these radio elements are not completely audibly realized. Kubes needs to crank up the volume! And speaking of audio, preshow, the audience is given an opportunity to write audiograms. During radio commercial breaks, the audiograms are delivered by the cast. Holiday greetings are mixed with requests for parking money as the messages are broadcasted to and from audience members. It’s a nice personal holiday touch and cheaper than buying cards.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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Review: Goodman’s “Boleros for the Disenchanted”

A touching journey of one woman’s quest for love

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Playwright Jose Rivera takes us on an emotionally touching journey through the eyes and soul of his mother as she experiences the raw struggles, joys, flaws, disappointments and selfless choices that love demands. As a young woman in Puerto Rico, innocent and filled with optimism in the strength of love, she leaves her unsuitable fiancé and meets the man she will marry. Boleros for the Disenchanted, Boleros-2playing at Goodman Theatre, is about whether that love can sustain 40 years later, after the truths of life have been unveiled.

Rivera’s story begins in the early 1950’s in Puerto Rico with a breathtaking set designed by Linda Buchanan filled with an assortment of flowers, and bright simply constructed housing. This Puerto Rican set is electrified with the romantic colors of the sky created by lighting designer (Joseph Appelt.)

The cast of six actresses and actors each take on multiple roles as the play ages itself through the years. With the outstanding direction of Henry Godinez, the transition of the characters’ lives over forty years has a natural fluidity and builds in intensity as it pushes various emotional nerves each act.

As the story begins, young Flora (Elizabeth Ledo) is engaged to marry the smooth talking charismatic machismo Manuelo (Feliz Solis) but she recently discovered that he has been cheating on her with another woman. Raised in a strict Catholic household, Flora was keeping herself pure for him. Flora’s mother warns her about being with a man like Manuelo but also speaks about the role of a woman in a marriage and dismisses the hurtful actions of men as it being in their nature. This conversation between Young Flora and her mother is continuously funny and made boleros_eusebioand floramore so by their ability to act as if they see no humor in their lines. Flora has witnessed, as we witness, her father’s (Rene Rivera) emotional flar-ups and how her mother copes with these individual moments and maintains their marriage.

Her father’s brash actions towards his wife and daughter leave the audience with a bit of distaste for his character, but the portrayal is realistic for the social norms of the time and emphasizes the social suppression of women. He also represents the Boleros-4sentiment of the elder Puerto Rican society, a disappointment in the deterioration of their country, which is mainly blamed on the United States. Neighbors with in the community are leaving for places like New York and Chicago, produce is being taken to the United States and being sold back to them at inflated prices, and the traditional values of the past are being taken for granted. The value of family, honor and happiness over wealth remains in Flora’s household, and her parents hope she will marry a good Puerto Rican who will remain in Puerto Rico.

Manuelo also attempts to justify his polygamous actions by explaining the biological nature of men, but his refusal to Boleros-6remain faithful to her forces her to leave him. Manuelo’s charismatic style of saying something ridiculous but making it sound romantic and sincere is gut-wrenchingly funny as he tries to romanticize his promiscuous ways.

Heart broken but uplifted with the excuse to visit her free-spirited eccentric cousin Petra (Liz Fernandez) Flora takes a trip to the “big” city. Against her traditional upbringing of female purity Flora and Petra are sitting alone outside when they meet a young soldier who is interested in Flora. Young Eusebio (Joe Minoso) is a kind patient man who draws the audience’s affection through his sincere love for Flora and desire for her happiness.

Boleros-3 Does Eusebio grow up to be the man and husband that Flora believes he is? Does their love still flourish with the same excitement and electricity that they had in their youth while meeting under the Puerto Rican sun?

Nine children later, living alone in America, and taking care of her now disabled husband, Jose Rivera tells us the story of how his mother champions love in its most beautiful and encouraging states along with the most ugly and defeating moments that life brings.

Jose Rivera’s ability to tell his parent’s story with heart-felt honesty astounds me. The inclusion of multiple themes such as migration, the loss of traditional values in individual progress, the roles of men and women and the meaning of true happiness all created a complicated mix much like the lives of his parents. The strength and vulnerability shown in Flora and her husband Eusebio are beautifully played by Boleros-7Sandra Marquez and Rene Rivera. They capture the depth and contradicting emotions that come with forty years of marriage.

This beautiful story had me laughing for 2 hours and crying at the end. It left a knot in my stomach and throat that only a story capturing the deepest truth of love can create. This play represents love in real relationships and the truth that lies behind the stories of our lives. In the end we see the strength that can surface when we choose to love.

Rating: ««««

Where: Goodman Theatre

Through: July 26th

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