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LA Theater Review

Los Venidos and Simply Maria

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Step right up and get two classic Hispanic tales for the price of one. Karla Ojeda, who's not afraid to let her actors cut loose, ably directs both productions. First up is Los Venidos, written by noted playwright Luis Valdez, who's probably best known for Zoot Suit. Although Valdez's satirical offering is nearly 40 years old, it is, sadly, still quite timely, as progress in race relations comes slowly. Valdez turns his sharp-edged wit on the Reagan administration — that's California Gov. Ronald Reagan — and Reagan's drive to find a brown face to include in his very white government. But it must be an "acceptable" brown face, one that is patriotic, professional, inspirational, sexy, urban, and, of course, whitelike. To that end, Miss Jimenez, the governor's aide, played with intense determination by the talented Julie Estrada Evans, is dispatched to Honest Sancho's used Mexican lot to find an acceptable Hispanic model. Sancho, a smooth-talking, never-take-no-for-an-answer salesman, played with gusto by Francisco Garcia, first shows Miss Jimenez three robots on the lot. There is Pacheco, an urban knife-wielding gangsta-cholo, who's not afraid to rob or fight, smoothly played by Dave Trejo; the hard-working, vegetable-picking, easy, cheap upkeep, but non-English-speaking farmer (Victor Casta単eda); and, finally, the Revolutionary rebel, Oscar Basulto, who's sexy, manly, a fighter, and also does commercials and movies. Jimenez, who's traded her heritage for a place at the governor's table, rejects all three. She finally settles on the Harvard-trained, well-groomed, bilingual, and politically correct model named Eric, expertly played by Jeremiah Ocanas, only to encounter a Rod Serling-like twist Valdez has inserted into his robot-for-sale backdrop.

Simply Maria is a campy romp through one young girl's coming of age in the projects of Boyle Heights. There is an autobiographical edge and surprising sophistication to this production, written two decades ago by the actor Josefina Lopez, then 17, who grew up in the area and founded Casa 0101. Ricardo, Maria's father, leaves his wife and young daughter to find work in the United States and make a better life for his family. Deftly played by Jose De Jesus Martinez, Ricardo is a traditional Mexican man who sees women as second-class citizens meant to serve their father, husband, and son; make babies; clean house; and cook meals — though he initially encourages his daughter to be all she can be, a tune that changes after Maria becomes more Americanized. Her long-suffering, emotionally stunted, and abandoned mother (Ramona Pilar Gonzales) offers little support and pushes her daughter to accept her lot in life. But Maria, portrayed with fire and determination by April Ibarra, is a fiercely independent young woman who dreams of college and a career as an actor. After experiencing a dreamlike sequence that lays out the dismal life her parents want for her, and learning her father is cheating on her mother, Maria finally summons up the courage to strike out on her own and go for her dream.

Presented by and at Casa 0101, 2009 E. First St., L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Sep. 22-Oct. 29. (323) 263-7684.

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