Bella Villarreal as Young Esperanza (center), with ensemble actor Eraina Porras (right).Below: Ensemble actors Gabriel Sánchez, Eraina Porras, Salvador Valadez, María Ibarra and Joshua Segovia.
Photos: Siggi Ragnar
September 7, 2016
Since its 1984 publication, Sandra
Cisneros’s celebrated novel The House
on Mango Street has been a part of
school and college curricula around
the country. It is the beautifully
written story of a young Latina living
in a dangerous part of Chicago who
yearns for a better life somewhere
beyond the barrio, yet ultimately
discovers that her experiences there
will always be a part of her.
Any theatrical adaptation of the book
is bound to be tricky because it is
actually a series of brief, often only
peripherally related, vignettes. The
adaptation by Amy Ludwig, a Los
Angeles contract writer whose
primary job is copywriter for a major
advertising agency, has been staged a number
of times over the years with mixed success.
That’s the version now playing at The Classic
Theatre, featuring an energetic, capable cast,
skillfully directed by José Rubén De León.
Being energetic is essential, since the scenes
are set up primarily as a rapidly paced stream
of consciousness with minimal pauses. The
older Esperanza (the always excellent Gypsy
Pantoja) and her younger self (talented
12-year-old Bella Villarreal) serve as narrators
while a half-dozen cast mates reenact her
recollections. Sometimes the younger one
joins them, with the adult Esperanza’s
viewpoint offered through the lens of
Already planning to become a writer, the
adolescent is bright and observant, with a
notebook nearly always at hand. She absorbs
and records the sometimes harsh, often
amusing lessons of class differences, clashing
cultures or the realities of death, love or lust.
The spirit – and often the actuality – of Ms.
Cisneros’s graceful prose is largely retained: Women at a window “sit their sadness on an elbow,” or someone “looked into the dusky cat fur of his eyes.”
Due to an unusual circumstance, Villarreal was cast less than two weeks before opening night – in a role brimming with pages of dialogue. Memorizing all of those lines in such a short time is impressive enough, but she also acts persuasively and without affectation.
Multiple roles as friends, neighbors and others are convincingly played by Maria A. Ibarra, Eraina Porras, Arianna Angeles, Salvador Valadez, Gabriel Sánchez, and Joshua Segovia. Because they are identified only as Woman #1 and #2, etc., specifics as to who did what are, unfortunately, difficult, adding more confusion to the hurried sequence of vignettes.
Esperanza recalls cruelty and thoughtlessness among some of her friends; one of the most painful is the scene when two girls are mocking a dying woman who has lingered for a long time. Shudder. The raucousness of boys on the make or portrayals of abusive men are other sober remembrances, happily balanced against three girls taking a gleeful bike ride or wobbling about on high heels. She also remembers such poignant moments as her mother realizing she did not escape the barrio. “I could have been somebody,” she says, encouraging her daughter to study hard and go to school.
The message is clearer still when Esperanza is visited by las comadres, three black-gowned sisters who tell her she will not forget and will always come back to her home on Mango Street.
Mr. De León keeps the action lively and natural, using the full playing space as defined by stadium-style seating (audience on two sides only). The handsome set by Allan S. Ross features front stoops of two homes against silhouetted cityscapes on opposite sides of the stage; one is red brick and supposedly run-down and small, while the other is white cinderblock and large.
The script’s busy or truncated scene shifts tend to blur parts of Esperanza’s touching, humorous story, but that is not the fault of those involved in this production. On vitually all counts, it is strong and effective. And serve as a nudge, perhaps, to re-read Ms. Cisneros’s eloquent book.
The House on Mango Street runs through Sept. 25 at The Classic Theatre, 1924 Fredericksburg Rd. Call 589-8450.
Classic Theatre: The House on Mango Street
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