LOS ANGELES—The Latino Theater Company kicks off its 2017 season exploring themes of identity and its relationship to history with a new world premiere play by Jonathan Ceniceroz set on board a Caribbean luxury ocean liner.
Ric Salinas, a founder of the Latino satirical ensemble Culture Clash, heads the cast as the onboard “enrichment lecturer” Ramón, whose talks fill in some of the long stretches of open ocean voyaging and provide historical and cultural context to the well-to-do passengers on the Majestic. Kenneth Lopez plays Ramón’s out-and-proud gay aspiring writer son James, long estranged from his father and from his Latino heritage. Carolyn Almos portrays the nouveau riche Judith, a Betsy De Vos-type Arizonan intent on furthering her conservative political group, the Alliance for Stronger Borders, by backing a right-wing Latino for legislative office. Gary Lamb is her pleasure-seeking second husband Howard. Brian Wallace plays the German-speaking flamer Boyd Mathiessen, the cruise director who knows secrets from Ramón’s past, although Ramón also knows a few compromising things about Boyd, too. Heath Cullens directs.
Ramón is a longtime Chicano activist who, between his boycotting, marching, picketing and protesting never seemed to find much time to mentor his son. Now, he feels, he’s entitled to a little R&R in his life, and what better way than ocean cruising half the year, consuming champagne and the tropical Goombay Smash drink, and giving half-baked lectures on the local indigenous people? He’s a committed anti-imperialist, a “pocho avenger” bent on making sure his passengers know how much bloody murder and mayhem Christopher Columbus and his gang committed on these islands where the liner docks. Committed to the carefree comfort of his paying guests, Boyd is less than amused by Ramón’s Zinnian politics. The wealthy Judith and Howard regard Ramón as a pusher of “revisionist history.” James perceives that his father gets most of his material from Wikipedia and makes the rest up.
“I wanted to explore the sense of dislocation that so many of us feel in today’s society,” explains playwright Ceniceroz, author of several previous plays about ethnic identity and about the “otherness” of gay culture. “Ramón and James are third and fourth generation Latinos who have lost touch with their heritage. We don’t usually see the immigrant experience from that perspective—the assimilated, ‘pocho’ point of view. But I don’t think that a sense of fractured identity is limited to any one demographic. It’s a universal issue that everyone can relate to. And it all takes on a new resonance in the age of Trump.” He has elsewhere described this play as partly autobiographical.
The various plot strands introduced in the relatively concise first act, involving politics, ethnic identity and misrepresentation of legal personal identity, sexuality, and the overlapping back history of some of the characters, left a lot to unravel. I frankly wondered if the playwright could summon the wizardry to put the puzzle back together in the remaining act.
Perhaps this maiden voyage of the play should more properly be seen as a workshop production. The Cruise has promise but needs further work. We don’t see enough of the characters’ personal motivations. Some substantial and clearer subplotting would help to bring these figures into greater relief. The addition of another character who is an actual worker on the cruise ship other than Boyd, the ambitious cruise director, might contribute a dose of realism to this fantasy concoction. The central conflict—really the only one—between father and son achieves resolution only ambiguously. The two go off in separate directions. In fact, as things stand at the end, who can say if James will ever see his father again?
I see a lot of new and recent plays in L.A., and The Cruise seems to be part of a trend: Playwrights trying to capture the Zeitgeist are dissecting the current mood of young people’s confusion about goals in life and purpose in work. Student debt, the questionable value of a degree, the ubiquity of McJobs, the exorbitant cost of rent, the lack of a secure future through employment, unions, pensions, healthcare and Social Security, a clouded crystal ball for the future of immigrants and communities of color, the cynicism of government and our civic culture, scant consensus on what is right or wrong, fact or fiction, looming environmental crises, the dark prospect of decades devoted to the Resistance with no guarantee of a rosy outcome, all these are debilitating factors today. It’s become a chore to stay hopeful.
The creative team for The Cruise includes set designer Brittany Blouch, lighting designer Justin Huen, sound designer Ivan Robles and costume designer Manee Leija.
Performances of The Cruise take place at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles 90013 on Thurs., Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm and Sun. at 3 pm through April 9, with one additional performance on Mon., April 3 at 7:30 pm. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or go to http://thelatc.org/.