Since 1985, Phoenix Theatre producing director Bryan Fonseca, whose origins are partly Mexican, has produced 14 plays either written by Latino playwrights or with themes associated with Latino history, art and culture.
His commitment to this genre, which fits neatly into the overall mission of the Phoenix, continues with “Guapa,” by Caridad Svich. The drama, which opened Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, continues through Sunday, Jan. 20 on the Frank and Katrina Basile Stage. This lower level venue at the Phoenix is located in Indianapolis’ downtown Arts District.
A National New Play Network (NNPN) world premiere, the Phoenix production of “Guapa” is produced in conjunction with Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Ariz., which presented it in October 2012, and Miracle Theatre Group, Portland, Ore., which will present it in March 2013. All three theaters are being produced through the Network’s Continued Life of New Plays Fund.
Svich is a Latina playwright who gathered critical acclaim for her 2011 play, “The House of Spirits,” based on the novel of the same title by Isabel Allende.
"Guapa" is set in a small Texas town that suffers from the effects of discrimination. It focuses on Guapa (Phebe Taylor), a young woman who dreams of joining a professional women’s soccer team, and her adopted family, led by a single mother, Roly (Patricia Castañeda), who is determined that her charges achieve the success that has eluded her.
Roly's other family members include son LeBon (Guero Loco), daughter Pepi (Magdalena Ramos) — both of whom have different fathers — and nephew Hakim (Adrian Gomez). In the course of the play, it becomes clear that each member of the family has suffered some loss that has negatively affected their individual esteem.
A multi-subject drama, “Guapa” mixes lyrical language and magical realism, both staples of Latino literature and drama, with Svich’s menu of concerns — racism, sexism, classicism, environment, education, assimilation, history, dysfunction and recovery. Though all important issues, “Guapa” strives to be all things to all people, but might have been more successful had it covered less ground and, therefore, seemed less contrived.
What works the best in this play, however, is Svich’s portrayal of “familia,” or family — as improvised as it is — with dynamics that anyone can relate to their own experience as a member of any family unit.
Patricia Castañeda, as Roly, gave a dynamic acting performance as the determined head of the household who struggles financially to support her brood. She is often called on to act as a mediator when her charges quarrel, as siblings often do. Cognizant of her own past failures, Castañeda’s Roly does her best to impart wisdom, while doling out the necessary discipline and affection required in her role as family matriarch. Though others in the family believe Guapa can achieve her goal to play professional soccer, Roly is skeptical about what she considers an unattainable dream.
Phebe Taylor turned out a striking performance as Guapa, the young athlete who longs for recognition on the soccer fields and trusts that the Catholic saints she believes in and the Indian ancestors who speak through her will guide her in fulfilling dreams of success in the sport that she loves.
Adrian Gomez, who played the same role in the Borderlands Theater production, was effective as the easygoing, but tough if provoked, Hakim, who finds refuge with his Aunt Roly and her often contentious, but ultimately loving and loyal, family.
Guero Loco, as Roly’s volatile son, LeBon, a graffiti artist who celebrates his indigenous roots, and Magdalena Ramos, as her kind-hearted, bright and ambitious daughter, Pepi, both show promise as actors, but need more stage experience. Though talented, their performances lacked robustness and exhibited a tentative quality that was in sharp contrast to those of their more seasoned cast mates.
“Guapa” highlights included two very striking scenes. One was a scene which saw Taylor and Gomez performing a dance, choreographed by Mariel Greenlee, that represented Guapa in flight on the soccer field.
Another was an incredibly well-choreographed and realistic-looking fight between the LeBon and Hakim characters, as they struggled for dominance in a home that required co-existence.
Adding to the poetic flavor of the production was its video and sound design, both of which were originally created by Borderlands Theater personnel but adapted for this production by Phoenix resident composer and sound designer, Tim Brickley.