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Tuesday, March 5

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Theater Mon Mar 05 2012

Las Hermanas Padilla, the Taco Bell of Theater


Erica Cruz Hernandez, Emma Peterson, Jackie Alamillo, Natalie DiCristofano, Meghann Tabor and Natalie Turner-Jones in Chicago Fusion Theatre's Las Hermanas Padilla. Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

A couple of decades ago, social satirist Paul Mooney gave an exhaustive commentary on the state of how race patronage works in show business, specifically Hollywood. In his act, Mooney lowers his voice to become the voice-over for the marketing campaign for the 1990 movie Darkman - "Who is Darkman" Who is Darkman?" in a deep and slow bluster, Mooney mimics the announcer, recounting his enthusiastic anticipation of wanting to see this "Darkman." Of course Mooney comically implodes upon the revelation that "Darkman," well, ain't "dark," but Liam Neeson.

Chicago is teeming with Latina actresses, and yet the producers of Las Hermanas Padilla couldn't be bothered to find 10 Latinas to place on stage and bring their cultural experiences, the deeply personal and emotional thoughts and deeds of their female ancestors before them to playwright Tony Meneses script. Las Hermanas Padilla's inclusion of mysticism and spirituality is just as imperative to the production as the backdrop of war and death, and competent casting could have made for a competent production. Unfortunately, its Chicago premiere plays itself out like a throwback cosmic joke, a painful reminder of the unfortunate all-white production of Lincolnshire Drury Lane's The Wiz back in '86. LHP is inauthentic, foreign, and an insult to racial and ethnic sensibilities.

At no point did my Latina date and I feel comfortable with this production. Condescending, cold, and smug, falsely advertised as "diverse," LHP plays like an old-school Lifetime movie -- filmed in Canada all the while trying to convince its audience that it's made in America. My date pointed out that the two identifiable Latinas (and the most talented) were relegated to the smaller roles: Erica Cruz Hernandez's Chave and Nilsa Reyna's Blanca. Chave spends her time cooking for her "sisters," given little to say, while Blanca is physically and emotionally isolated from "the family," coming 'round to beg for money or receiving a visit in her "dirty" home. The marginalization of these actresses and their positioning in "the sisterhood" matters to a lot of us, perhaps because it reflects our personal experiences, literally every day of our existence. From the production standpoint, Hernandez and Reyna are credible, believable. What little they're given, they make their pain, pride and anxiety real for us. It is beyond comprehension why these actresses were relegated to minor roles with minor voices. Both should have been cast as the lead protagonists, rather than assigned roles as "the help."

The remaining actresses substitute screaming their lines in place of conveying feelings or emotion. The other actresses trip over their lines, talk over one another, skip beat after beat; Spanish names are Americanized, the actresses not feeling the need to bother with correct pronunciation of their "sisters'" names. Natalie DiCristofano is absolutely dreadful as Carmen, delivering every single line as if she's Billy Crystal working his Sammy Davis Jr. interpretation.

Hernandez and Reyna are the exceptions, the rest of the women sound (as it would be woefully inaccurate to call their performances "acting") off not as "true" sisters waiting for their men to come back safe and sound, but like harridans in-training hanging out at an upscale suburban mall food court one-upping one another on their individual good fortune of marrying well. I felt like I was trapped in a thirtysomething rerun. If performance were a Mexican banquet, director Juan Castañeda delivers Taco Bell -- cold, limp, and days old. The one redeeming facet is found in Noël Dominque Straley's set design, with a proper mix of old-world setting and multimedia overlay.

Las Hermanas Padilla is promoted as a "diverse, all-female cast." Unless the definition of "diverse" includes a train ride in from the barrios of Glencoe or East Lakeview, then best of luck seeing true diversity in this production. Tony Meneses crafted a well-written play. I'll look forward to seeing it when there's a production team that has the courage to properly cast and give full light to Latina actresses and can do proper and faithful justice, or at least pronounce the names correctly.

Las Hermanas Padilla plays through April 1 at the DCA Storefront Theater. For tickets and more information, visit the DCA Theater's website.

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By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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