In Lucy Vargas' world premiere script, a young woman has been strangled by her husband and lingers at the gates of heaven, asked to relinquish all resentment before she can pass through. In flashbacks we see her life and her struggles—a universal voyage of self-discovery. And with this production's Caribbean-flavored story, near-perfect design, and lively music and dance, the audience has every right to expect a thrill ride. But something else happens here that derails the evening. First and foremost it takes a few moments to determine that the actors are speaking English; then far too much of our energy is dissipated trying to decipher much of the cotton-mouthed delivery. Spanish is occasionally used in what sounds to mono-lingual ears like bits of cursing; it realistically flavors the work but leaves only those who speak Spanish to laugh aloud at those few moments of seeming humor. Then after a while we realize the characters are one-dimensional and mundane. And knowing early on that our heroine will undoubtedly pass her celestial test leaves us not fully engaged.
Playwright Vargas portrays Angela, the soon-to-be angel, from schoolgirl to young victim of spousal abuse. Ricardo Morales fortunately offers a less-than-brutal depiction of Angela's husband. Ludo Vika shows comedic flair as Angela's hideous mother. Veronica Johnson portrays the gatekeeper—part moon goddess and part earth mother. And battling for Angela's soul are aspects of good and evil: Sofie Calderon and Willo Tristani, respectively. To original music by Alberto Mirabal (lyrics by Vargas), the actors move to choreography by Marcellina de Luna. Calderon in particular has a stirring aptitude for the movement, making hers a tidy bit of physical theatre.
Director Pedro J. Ortiz has blessed the production with a highly visual staging. The set and costumes by Poli Marichal are appealing and effective—part earthy, part mysterious—to which prop master Miguel A. Echevarria adds fascinating bits and pieces. Lighting designer Leigh Allen crafts moody moonlight, sun-drenched joy, and a sense of nostalgic remembrance. That the producers decided to expand the house and add seats in front of the risers ruins the sightlines for those seated in the lower levels, however: As always in such situations, climactic scenes are played downstage and on the floor. And with the cavernous space afforded the production here, why bring the actors into the audience for their ear-splitting arguments?
And most egregiously, elementary acting technique seems missing: In addition to the aforementioned lack of enunciation, for superficial example an upstage cheek is slapped but the actor reacts to her downstage cheek. Ultimately, despite the promising itinerary, this jaunt is quite a bumpy ride.
"Jaunt," presented by and at Gascon Center Theatre, 8737 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Mar. 22-Apr. 28. $15-18. (213) 481-2176.