One woman's tour de force


Mexican stage, TV and movie star Ofelia Medina electrifies audiences at the new Los Angeles Theater Center.

What luck this Fall of 2008 to have the luxury of seeing Mexican artist Ofelia Medina on stage at the new LATC!

We forget all too easily that movies, and even more so actors – owe so much to the STAGE.

Recently I saw two plays at the new Los Angeles Theater Center, LATC, in a bold and uncompromising staging and interpretation by Mexican actress, writer/director Ofelia Medina (“Innocent Voices” 2004, “Frida” 1986) whose theater, TV and movie credits in Mexico are a testament to her mega-star status in her country. In collaboration with the University of Guadalajara, Medina first presented her one-woman show, “Intimately, Rosario of Chiapas” (Intimamente, Rosario de Chiapas), inspired by the life and poetry of the late, great Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, then followed it with “To Each His Own Frida” (Cada Quien Su Frida), Medina’s personal and passionate stage piece dedicated to the life and times of the revolutionary Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who has since become the country’s best known cultural export neck-to-neck with the Virgin of Guadalupe.

If “Rosario” was more subdued with all eyes on Medina, alone on stage and accompanied by occasional strumming of the cello, the poetry cut through with a power all its own:

Time is too long for life;
For knowledge not enough.
What have we come for, night, heart of night?
Dream that we do not die
And, at times, for a moment, wake.
-Rosario Castellanos

To paraphrase Mayakovsky, who famously gave voice to the promise of the Russian revolution, art is really all we are given with which to shape the world. And indeed on the eve of the worst economic calamity since his times poetry is once again flexing its muscle with the power to communicate what we feel and what we are going through in the world of fast-fading ‘values’, ‘commodities’, and all that junk that took so much of our lives and energy and gave us back so little.

As for Frida……Medina was Frida many time before, most notably in the 1986 first movie version of the celebrated painter’s life. By now Frida has become Medina’s alter ego, and the actress and director struts her character on stage with supreme confidence, energy and panache. The visuals of Medina’s Frida are stunning. There are the colors, the music, the revolutionary spirit, and above all Frida’s love of life….and Medina as an actress on top of her game, drawing in the audience into the closing musical numbers and singing ode to life with her raspy, deep voice of someone who knows what life, love and art is all about.

This thought process is what is perhaps the most remarkable this season at the new LATC: this bold pursuit of the art of theater that aims to “shape the world” and to help us make sense of it. We are so used to the dichotomy of “commercial” theater vs. “smaller” theater, schlock vs. the valiant effort, Broadway-style entertainment vs. bare-bone survival pieces sustained by dedicated and unpaid actors, just as we have become used and resigned to the duality of cinema as “studio films” vs “independent movies” so that when something comes out borne out of passionate belief in, and knowledge of all the classical tenets of theatre (or cinema) we are momentarily disoriented, asking hey, what happened, where did THIS come from?

The new LATC operates on a mandate to bring to Los Angeles such top talent as Medina, to tell stories that transcend boundaries, geographical and otherwise, and to collaborate with the best, the boldest, the untamed. Even the intent alone is remarkable. This is an approach to the task ahead with a vision to move our artistic scene from the stale trenches and to shake a few feathers. This theater wants poetry, wants voices from around the world, wants new audiences, wants to jolt people from their seats and to say a thing or two about our times.

It is an ambitious agenda, no doubt. Under the artistic direction of Jose Luis Valenzuela the new LATC has shown the spark, and spunk. With Ofelia Medina and her two women, Rosario Castellanos and Frida Kahlo, as well as The Moor’s Pavane et al. by the New York’s José Limón Dance Company, Joyce Guy’s multi-media piece “War Stories” about Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm, cellist Semyon Kobialka’s performance, Yussef El Guindi’s comedy about being a minority in the entertainment industry Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes, Dan Kwong’s multimedia extravaganza It’s great 2-b-n-American, three pieces (The House of Dinah or the Black Queen, English Only: a fight for words in America, and the Headphones Tour) from UCLA New Works Festival, to name a few shows on the Fall’s program…….. it is obvious that the renewed energy of this arts center has legs.

Any artistic effort is measured by how many new artists and innovative pieces it is able to attract and inspire, and how relevant it will become to its creative peers and contemporary audience. For now, it got a good number of people on the edge of the seat, and has shown that there is a third way – not ‘commercial’, not ‘independent’, not ‘big’ or ‘small’, but the path of bold and explosive creativity that bursts on the scene like Pegasus that demands our attention.

Face of the World Festival – through December 14
The new Los Angeles Theater Center, Downtown LA


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Vera Mijojlic

Vera Mijojlic is the founder and director of the South East European Film Festival in Los Angeles. Formerly a film critic in ex-Yugoslavia, she also works as a programming and marketing consultant for art house films in the U.S.

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