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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Living Out and American Buffalo


Living Out comes to vivid life on Mixed Blood stage

Living Out
Isabelle Ortega as Ana Hernandez and Sally Wingert as Nancy Robin
Last year, Mixed Blood had my pick for Twin Cities' play-of-the-year with Suzan Lori Park's Topdog/Underdog and, darn it, if the theater hasn't pulled the teddy bear out of the hat and done it again! It's only April, but Lisa Loomer's Living Out might well prove to be the area's best play of 2004.

I resist using superlatives in a review, but with Living Out, I have no choice. This production has a superb script, terrific staging and excellent acting

Loomer's play is laugh-out-loud funny, yet deep and heart-wrenching, as it takes a clear-eyed look at culture, class, power and what it means to be an illegal immigrant in the U.S.

Ana is an illegal immigrant whose life was disrupted by the war in El Salvador. She has one son in El Salvador and one in California. She takes a job as a nanny to the newborn of a harassed entertainment lawyer, Nancy. Both women are educated, both have husbands who don't understand their wives' will to work and both want to be good parents. Neither is entirely honest with her employer. Ana's reach for legality leads to unforeseen consequences.

On Richard Borgen's deceptively simple set that uses video projections, scrims and light to portray multiple settings, director Armando Molina creates two convincing worlds on the same set, one affluent and Anglo on the west side, where the air is clean, and the other, poorer, smoggier, but happy and hopeful on the east side of town.

Molina's stage craft is as clever as it comes. Sometimes, both couples are on stage at the same time and transitions between scenes are a fluid combination of playwriting finesse and Molina's creativity. As Ana sings a lullaby to her child, background music shifts from Latin to Western, the lights fade on Ana and come up on Nancy, singing to her daughter. In a particularly fine transition, Ana's husband Bobby sits on his couch, remote control-in-hand, turns off the TV and hands off the remote to Richard, Nancy's husband, and to the next scene in the west side home. Molina's direction is so graceful that it was virtually invisible, as I followed the back-and-forth action.

His bilingual cast of hand-picked apples hails from California and Minnesota, and it's hard to imagine more accomplished guides into the interdependent, but fraught world of Latina nannies and Anglo employers.

Isobelle Ortega shines as Ana. I cared about this intelligent and determined young woman who is caught in untenable circumstances. Sally Wingert's likeable Nancy, an enlightened woman who is taken aback by her unconscious stereotyping of Latinas, brings similar empathy to her character.

They are ably supported by Raśl Ramos as Ana's husband and a wonderfully engaging Bob Davis as Nancy's husband. Carolyn Pool and Michelle Hutchinson romp home as two shallow, stay-at-home-mothers, who employ nannies in order not to stay at home. They sit in the park, stereotyping their employees as, hilariously, their two Latina nannies, wonderfully played by Adlyn Carreras and Catalina Maynard, counter stereotype their Anglo employers, although from harder lives.

To sum up, it would be a sin to miss this first class production of a compelling play.

Living Out April 16 - May 15, 2004. English and Spanish/English performances on alternating nights. Thursdays - Fridays 8:00 p.m. Saturdays 7:00 p.m. $10 -$22. Mixed Blood Theater, 1501, South Fourth St., Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-338-6131. www.mixedblood.com.

Photo: Ann Marsden


Fifty Foot Penguin puts American Buffalo through its paces

American Buffalo
(l-r) Bob Malos, Andre Samples, Michael Tezla
David Mamet's American Buffalo might start slowly on Fifty Foot Penguin's stage of a cluttered junk shop, but once Bob Malos bangs into the premises as Teach (the role that Dustin Hoffman made famous in the 1996 movie), this production gathers the unstoppable momentum of a huge beast in full charge, and it kept me pinned to my seat.

Packed with Mamet's knuckle-hard language, American Buffalo is by turn touching, cynical, poignant and violent. It deals in the corrupted trust and layered betrayal of three small time-hustlers, as they make a grab for the American Dream.

Donny scratches out a living from his junk shop and acts as a father figure to young Bob, a quiet youth who gophers for him. A customer recently found a rare American Buffalo nickel among Donny's junk and bought it for less than Donny now believes it is worth. Plotting with young Bob, Donny plans to steal the coin back, and perhaps a bit more besides, but Teach muscles his way into the action and sews doubt in Donny's mind about Bob's loyalty.

Bob Malos brings to Teach the same molten anger that he brought to Juror Three in 50 Foot's powerhouse production of Twelve Angry Men last December. As the juror, tall Malos was a blunt instrument. As Teach, he's an unpredictable vortex of destructive energy.

Teach sweeps into his friend Donny's shop, slamming the wooden table, shouting, striding, accusing, railing against a pair of lesbians, and picks up a piece of metal used to splay open the hind legs of slaughtered pigs. Sitting in the front row of the Cedar Riverside intimate theater, I found myself cringing away from him. Malos nails Teach, a competitive controller who uses manipulation, threat and phony rationalization to get what he wants.

Michael Tezla's avuncular Donny serves as an effective foil to Malos' Teach. He's steady and kindly, a crook, yes, but a crook with some values. For a while, it looks as though he might withstand Teach's onslaught, but as tension rises on the night of the planned hit, Teach undermines Donny's trust in young Bob, and the tornado touches down.

For all that he's a would-be partner in crime, Bob is an innocent, a victim, waiting to happen, and Andre Samples finds the right passivity for his young character.

Director Zach Curtis joined with prop designer David Pust to create a junk shop convincingly stuffed with the arcane jumble of the '70s. And he has done what he does best; he has taken a powerful script, cast it with made-for-the-part actors and drawn from them character-invested performances.

American Buffalo April 16 - May 1, 2004. Thursdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m. and Sunday April 25 at 7:30 p.m. $15. Fifty Foot Penguin Theater at The Cedar Riverside People's Center, 425, 20th Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-381-1110.

Photo: Zach Curtis



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Elizabeth Weir



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