Actors Theatre of Phoenix has taken another artistic risk that pays off in spite of itself. The company's production of actor/author John Leguizamo's Spic-O-Rama succeeds mostly as a showcase for the talents of local actor Richard Trujillo, whose superb performance as six different members of one familia loca busts past the limits of Leguizamo's material.
Spic-O-Rama is based on Leguizamo's own screwed-up family, presented here by 9-year-old Miggy on the day of his older brother's wedding. Miggy introduces us to his parents and each of his three brothers, whom Trujillo enacts in a series of first-person recitations. There's the groom, Krazy Willie, a small-time gangster who's not sure his intended will turn up at their nuptials; Rafael, a gay actor who wants to be white and claims he's the love child of Sir Laurence Olivier; Javier, a retarded man who's obsessed with sex and with the father who abandoned him; and Miggy's parents: Gladys, a nosy parker who's resigned herself to half a life with Felix, her faithless husband. These people drink and carouse, carry illegal firearms and womanize, abandon their families and bemoan their lives. What they don't do is provide any insight into Hispanic culture or the ways in which they're discriminated against.
We meet a half-dozen people who rant about their awkward, renegade lives and proffer presumably amusing punch lines in Spanish (I don't speak the language, so these bits were lost on me). But where are the revelations? Leguizamo -- who performed the show himself for several years -- tells us how messed-up these people are, but never tells us exactly why. While the author's take on himself and his family is shrewd and sometimes amusing, it offers no depth. Audiences looking for insights into Hispanic culture will leave empty-handed.
There's even less insight into Leguizamo himself, who's entirely obscured by his crafty characters. This ambiguity is personified in Rafael, who has perfected a characterization of an Anglo so well that we never find out about the person behind the bleached hair and blue contact lenses. We're given hints about his character: He's insecure, but what actor isn't? He hates his family, but who can blame him? These people are nuts.
Despite their flaws, Leguizamo obviously loves these people. He makes up for their lack of depth with heaps of affection, and the result is a houseful of characters who, in each case, exude a certain warmth despite their bad behavior. Director Diane Rodriguez trades on this warm fuzziness, directing Trujillo to speak asides directly to the audience: The actor often punctuates a punch line with a wisecrack like, "I know you know what I mean, sir!" This is funny in comedy clubs, but distracting in an autobiographical character study.
Fortunately, this is Rodriguez's only gaffe in an otherwise seamless one-act. Her best bit is keeping Trujillo's costume changes onstage, which serves two purposes: It gives us something to look at between characterizations and -- by allowing us to watch Trujillo prepare for his next role -- is a subtle reminder that this actor's performance is the real reason we're here.
With the help of some wigs and a handful of chairs, Trujillo expertly transforms himself into every Hispanic stereotype you've ever encountered. He turns two-bit gangster Krazy Willie into a swaggering Stanley Kowalski clone, and -- in cheap Dynel ringlets and a purple mini-dress -- makes mom Gladys into something other than the inevitable comic drag turn. Trujillo even elevates Leguizamo's mawkish windup, which finds Miggy thanking God for his whacked-out family. Trujillo is the real reason to see Spic-O-Rama.
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