~by Brian Sonia-Wallace
Trio Los Machos is one of those tricky plays that straddles the line between community and professional theatre and so winds up with the strengths and shortcomings of both. On one hand, the mixed veteran and amateur Latino cast give a heartfelt account of a community’s under-told story with great humor and compassion. But, though Casa 0101′s new space is as beautiful as the best small theatres in LA, the acting in this production often veers toward soap opera and the singing is not consistent.
At the end of the day, the play is saved not by what it achieves theatrically but by what it represents: what it is for. It is for exposing the hidden history of the Bracero Program, in which Mexican immigrants were asked to come to the US to work and then cheated at every turn, for spreading the romantic music of ‘boleros’, for openly discussing and challenging machismo in Latino culture, for the transformative, humanizing power of music and art, and for nurturing that very art within its own underserved community. Trio Los Machos may not be as ‘world-class’ as I would like, but you’d be hard pressed to find a production that is more ‘Los Angeles’.
Written by Josephina López (famous for writing Real Women Have Curves, a fact you will be reminded of at least three times before the show), Trio Los Machos follows the exploits of its titular bolero-singing trio, who are loosely based on the historical Los Panchos. When we meet Paco, Lalo, and Nacho, (Henry Madrid, Miguel Santana, and Roberto Garza) they are old and falling apart, vocally, physically and as a group. Through the course of the show we are shown in flashback their younger selves (Adrian Quiñonez, Gilbert Rodriguez, and Josh Duron) meeting and coming together as new immigrants in the Bracero Program, but the focus always remains on their friendship and the music, letting the politics simmer just beneath the surface of their everyday lives. This device is particularly effective as it prevents the play from ever preaching and simply provides its devastating images without comment. The scene in which the young Braceros are stripped down and ‘decontaminated’ is particularly effective, recalling the horror of Auschwitz showers while projected historical photos assure us that, no, this is not a metaphor, this is the actual experience of hundreds of young Mexicans who were invited to the US to work.
Act I is very filmic, told mostly in short English scenes at different locations punctuated by music to show transition. However, a good half of Act II is entirely sung in Spanish, with the characters actions following the mood and words of popular boleros. The lines between past and present blur as the music infuses itself into both worlds. I can’t actually complain about the drastic stylistic change in the writing from film-play to musical because it works very effectively, even though it shouldn’t, as the end of the play draws everything that’s come before into a surprising catharsis.
I also can’t just say that some of the acting is overdone and leave it at that, though I’d like to. There are the occasional cringe moments in which characters say exactly what they’re feeling or, worse, who they are and what they’re doing, but the play has enough references to soap operas (telenovelas) that I’m tempted to forgive a great deal of it as irony. Equally, actors who spend one scene just shouting then have a habit of making everyone laugh before getting back to turning nuanced performances. The singing is sometimes good and sometimes bad, with Rocio Mendoza, the inevitable girl-who-makes-the-band-fight, always as a standout. The guitar parts always sound great to me, though I’m no music critic. The only thing I can unhesitantly pan are the fight scenes, which are dreadful, truly awful, and happen a lot as the characters try to out-macho one another. The lesson to be learned here is, however playful your show’s fights may be, always get a choreographer.
The bilingual nature of the show mostly works well, as Spanish subtitles are projected above the stage, though monolingual English speakers will lose tidbits of dialogue and all of the largely un-subtitled songs. Though a rough translation of most of the songs might be, “Oh baby, I love you, I love you so much, Oooh,” so that’s not an unforgivable loss. I brought a guest who didn’t speak Spanish and she was never confused.
Outside the action of the play itself, the accompanying gallery entitled “Recollections From Yesterday and Today of Ex-Braceros” and the discount tickets for Boyle Heights residents solidify Trio Los Macho’s commitment and service to its community, which I applaud. Don’t go to Trio Los Machos expecting brilliant theatre. But do go, because this is a story that needs to be told, a story you should hear, and one that you won’t find anywhere outside of LA.
Trio Los Machos is performed June 8-July 8, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm.
The New Casa 0101 Theater is located at 2102 E. First Street, Boyle Heights, CA 90033.
Ticket price: $20 general admission, $17 students, seniors & groups (10+), $15 Boyle Heights residents with identification.