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MIXED MESSAGES

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Somewhere out there is a play about claiming and celebrating one's identity. Unfortunately, Cherylene Lee's mixed-up play is so far "out there" that it never lands on a solid concept. The battle between academic anthropology and cultural conscience is joined when Jake (Luis Villalta) confronts Wai (Mia Riverton) in the office of her recently deceased mentor at the La Brea Tar Pits museum. Jake is there to claim the skull of his sister, who died in the La Brea muck 9,000 years ago, to return her to her ancestors, the Chumash Indians.

After a series of verbose exchanges—Wai's pedantic, Jake's fantasy-based—it seems their mutual obsession about the La Brea Woman, the only human relic found in the bubbling asphalt, is based on separate false premises. Jake, abandoned almost at birth, is only 1/16th Chumash, not even recognized by the council that decides how much Indian-ness one needs to claim profits from Indian gaming. Wai Lin-Hyphen-Lawson, as Jake insists on addressing her, half Chinese/half English, has her own identity issues, and she is accused of having spirited away the infamous skull, which, coincidently, is missing from the museum. The balance of the play is a detective story, a 9,000-year-old cold case that deals with forensics, bone structure, superstition, identity theft, and a dual vision quest that exceeds the bounds of even magical realism.

Villalta manages the angry Jake handily, but Riverton delivers her lines without conviction. Walter Beery as Wai's father, and Natsuko Ohama as his divorced wife are distinct charms. Miguel Najera, as an Indian councilman, is nobly portentous, and Lisa Tharps is lively as Jake's lawyer, who recognizes a pro-bono case when she meets one.

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera does his inventive best with this awkwardly written piece—particularly headache-inducing is the streaming loop of recorded voices reciting their mixed racial heritage—but even with John Binkley's smart set, well-lighted by Gerry Gregory Linsangan, he can't make it less than ludicrous.

"Mixed Messages," presented by East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theater, Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., L.A. Thu.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. (No matinee on Sept. 18.) Sept. 15-Oct. 10. $28-33. (213) 625-7000, ext. 20.

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