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Rancho Pancho
Albuquerque Theatre Guild's Tennessee Williams Festival

Also see Dean's review of A Little Night Music

Rancho Pancho
Santiago Candelaria and Benjamin Briseño
In 1944 Tennessee Williams was a struggling playwright. His "memory play" The Glass Menagerie, produced first in Chicago in December, 1944 and later moved to Broadway in March of 1945, changed his life and his fortunes. The play went on to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and launched his career. The events chronicled in Greg Barrios' play, Rancho Pancho, begin in 1945 just after this first success but before Williams becomes a household name with later triumphs such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, both of which went on to win Pulitzer Prizes.

Barrios' play centers around a relationship Williams (played by Santiago Candelaria) had with a young man, Pancho Rodriguez, in late 1945-47, the years he was writing Streetcar, which he originally titled The Poker Night. Barrios' contention (one born out by others, including Williams' director Elia Kazan) is that Rodriguez became the model for Stanley Kowalski, the sexually charismatic figure immortalized on stage and film by Marlon Brando. Benjamin Briseño (who earlier played the role in San Antonio, Texas) plays Pancho in this production with intense physicality, imbuing the character also with the volatility and jealous temperament we associate with Stanley. Briseño's strong presence and vocal talents are highlighted in this production, directed by Diane Malone, who also directed the San Antonio production. Candelaria attempts to capture both Williams' seductiveness and his commitment to his writing, but Barrios' depiction of the playwright, emphasizing his decadence and instability without showing the audience his brilliance, hampers the significance of the play and forces the actor to largely react to Pancho. The script assumes the audience knows why Williams' work is important rather than dramatizing the nuance and insight Williams brought to the relationships in his plays. Writing was Williams' grounding in his life. There are hints in the script that Pancho is envious of this commitment and wishes he were a successful writer himself; this thread could be developed further.

Two women visit Williams and Rodriguez during the course of Rancho Pancho, the writer Carson McCullers (Teena Pugliese) and the stage director Margo Jones (Vivian Nesbitt). The idea of bringing these four very different personalities into a dramatic situation has much potential. McCullers, like Williams, was Southern, damaged by her past, and she struggled with mental health most of her life. In spite of her challenges, however, she produced indelible portraits of relationships like those shown in her novels The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. In Rancho Pancho she is largely a foil for the seductions of Pancho Rodriguez and drinking bouts with Williams. An opportunity was lost here for the playwright to explore the deeper sensibilities of these two southern writers shown along with their surface compatibility. Consequently, Pugliese appears to struggle at times for motivation. It's also regrettable that the Margo Jones role is ancillary; she enters in act two largely to comfort Williams when Pancho leaves him. While Vivian Nesbitt, a talented and versatile actress, nails Jones' Texas earthiness and big personality, the script never delivers on the conflict between Jones and Pancho which is set up in act one. So unnerved is Pancho by the mention of Jones' name at one point in this early action that, while Carson is watching, he smashes a bottle into the wall and cuts his hand badly.

Rancho Pancho excavates a little-known period in Tennessee Williams' life, the two years when everywhere he lived became "Rancho Pancho"—home was with his companion. The politics of ethnicity strongly play out in the power struggles between the two men. Pancho clearly often feels subordinate and physically used by Williams, that his sexual powers are not enough to hold William's interest. While Barrios resists some of the psychological possibilities of his drama, the play adds to the ongoing historical record and aura of one of 20th century America's greatest writers.

Pancho Pancho is produced by Linda López McAlister, President of Camino Real Productions, who has developed a wonderful series of dramatic productions as the theatre in residence at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. This production, like the previous three, is well served by the intimacy of the Wells Fargo Auditorium. The simple set of illuminated bottles and basic furnishings (designed by Diane Malone) works well as a backdrop to the action. The play, part of the Albuquerque Theatre Guild's Tennessee Williams Festival 2011 (marking the centenary of William's birth), runs through August 7, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, 1701 4th St. SW, Albuquerque, NM. Tickets are $15. general admission, $12 for students, seniors, and NHCC & Theatre Guild members. For more information, go to: www.caminorealabq.com.


Photo: Alan Mitchell


-- Lynn C. Miller



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