Version Of Tortilla Is Anything But Flat
Western Stage's ensemble work makes for a likable but not lovable production.
Thursday, August 16, 2001
Cheap Trick: Mrs. Torelli (Maegan Ruiz-Ignacio) accepts a peck on the cheek from Danny (Cain Moya Camargo), the Cassanova-like hero of Tortilla Flat.
It''s almost equally impossible to love or to hate The Western Stage''s current production, an original adaptation of John Steinbeck''s Tortilla Flat. On the one hand, there''s so much frenetic energy bouncing around on stage, and it''s presented in such an episodic fashion that it''s difficult to engage with the characters fully enough to develop deep feelings. On the other hand, the performances are so charming that it''s hard not to like the show. And, although it''s become almost tautological to say it, this is another great example of strong ensemble work from The Western Stage.
Tortilla Flat was Steinbeck''s third novel, published in 1935, and the first to be set in the city of Monterey (To A God Unknown, the novel immediately prior to Tortilla Flat was set in South Monterey County). Mimicking the style of Thomas Malory''s Morte D''Arthur, Tortilla Flat is an episodic tale about a group of lovable losers set in a fictitious Monterey neighborhood, just after World War I.
Danny (Cain Moya Camargo) comes home from the war and discovers that he has inherited two houses from his grandfather. The previously carefree Danny now has all the headaches of being a landowner, and the problems continue to grow as his friends Pablo (Carlos L. Cortez), Pilon (Miguel F. Gongora), Big Joe (Bruce Palmer), Jesus Maria (Edgar Cortez) and Pirate (Daniel A. Tarker) move in with him. Although it''s tough to say just exactly what this group''s quest is for, Steinbeck likened this tale to that of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. (In this production, David Parker''s set design pays homage to that connection: The only set piece on the stage is large, round, multi-use platform that serves as table, campfire pit and storage space for props. It''s elegant in its simplicity.)
This adaptation for the stage was written and directed by Richard Robert Kuhlman, a veteran actor, director, and playwright who has appeared on television in the series "Chicago Hope," "Seinfeld" and "Caroline in the City," as well as the movies Parenthood and Big Trouble. The experience shows in this production--there''s polish and confidence in every aspect of the play, from its construction to its execution.
Even so, there''s something lacking.
The first 15 minutes (or so) of the production might highlight where the play goes wrong. In an apparent effort to set the mood and ambiance of the fictitious, post-WWI, Monterey neighborhood known as "Tortilla Flat," there is a non-stop blur of action with actors performing a vignette, then leaving the stage, then coming back--sometimes as a different character--for another vignette. It''s almost like the opening production number for a musical comedy (compare it to the opening sequence, for example, from the film version of Guys and Dolls).
Not knowing what to expect from the rest of the production, and fearful that this might be the pace of the whole production, I found myself more preoccupied with trying to identify recurring characters than with soaking up the ambiance.
Although the pace slows down considerably, there is residual energy from that opening scene that lingers on the stage; right through to the end of the play, the actors remain dynamic, almost to a flaw. At the same time, and almost in contradiction to this action, the plot seems to slow down, and we don''t feel as if Danny is really being dragged toward the fateful climax by a tightening noose of responsibility and expectation. It''s a weird sort of disconnect that leaves us feeling a little dissatisfied by the end of the play, wondering exactly what went wrong.
With intermission, this play has a running time of about two and a half hours--around half an hour longer than the norm for most contemporary plays. The play might be well served by some editing, particularly in the second act, that would speed up Danny''s demise.
True to the novel (and so many of Steinbeck''s other works), the women in Tortilla Flat are relegated to roles of sex-starved moneygrubbers. In this production, Maegan Ruiz-Ignacio, Laura E. Tirado and Sara Antonia Valdez each get a chance to play multiple roles. Tirado''s Mrs. Morales, Danny''s seductive next-door neighbor, as well as Ruiz-Ignacio''s turns as Mrs. Torelli and Sweets are noteworthy.
As Danny, Cain Moya Camargo is energetic and charismatic enough to carry off the roles of leader of the pack and ladies'' man to scores of women throughout the play. As Pablo and Pilon, Danny''s plotting pals, Carlos L. Cortez and Miguel F. Gongora match roguishness with enough good-hearted charm that we not only forgive them their trespasses, but we have to like them as well.
And Daniel A. Tarker nearly walks away with the show as the dimwitted, dog-loving, vision-seeing Pirate. In one scene, Pirate preaches the gospel of Saint Francis to his dogs--the pooches are played by Danny and the rest of his roommates--all of whom are clearly having a ball, scratching, sniffing and generally hamming around.
If the opening scene highlights what''s weakest about this play, the St. Francis scene captures what''s best: sincere performances coupled with selfless ensemble work. It''s the type of work that''s impossible to dislike, even if you can''t love it.