By Greggory Moore , Curtain Call columnist
The naive high-school girl impregnated by a married man. The betrayed and vengeful wife. The neighborhood gossip. The street toughs claiming their territory. The inner-city kid longing to sail away. The rappers trying to make their voice heard above the din of so many other rappers. In today’s urban reality, these are the most familiar of tropes.
Not only does playwright Tahirih Moeller know this, in A Live Mixtape she’s trading on your knowledge, hoping you’ll come away from experiencing her “tracklist” of two dozen somewhat-connected vignettes better able to see these “fragmented stereotypes” populating your urban landscape as real-life people, with dreams and pain little different than yours.
Whether Moeller is successful probably depends on how much (or how little) empathy and imagination you applied to such people before you walked into the theater. If you’ve only thought about types, then maybe Moeller’s got some knowledge to drop on you here. Otherwise, A Live Mixtape never really gets beneath the surface.
The good news is that it’s not the most unattractive of surfaces, with some salient observations about the cultural milieu of the inner city, more than a few lines of solid street poetry, and plenty of humor.
A big chunk of that humor comes in the part of Princess (Cecilia Rodriguez), who has raised gossip to an artform and a public service. Moeller has certainly given Rodriguez something to work with in her two monologues, but Rodriguez is able to mine laughs out of her lines that a lesser actor simply could not reach. Similarly, Riky Garcia makes his role as a half-mad, half-inspired homeless man funny by sheer force of personality.
I’m not even going to try to do justice to Moeller’s street poetry, because a reviewer can scribble only so fast in the dark and because street poetry is never as good on paper as when you hear it live, but a highlight comes in a vignette entitled “Triangles,” which has a wife (Sarah-Michelle Guei), husband (Pedro Campos), and his high-school mistress (Adrianna Luna) trading off lines filling in their side of the story. Moeller’s rhythms and rhymes here are consistently effective, and each actor’s delivery is unique to his/her character.
While Moeller generally does a good job breaking up the pace to keep the intermissionless 90 minutes from bogging down, there is one major, unfortunate exception. Preceded by “Gone,” an artfully monochromatic song performed by Guei with live acoustic guitar backing that comes at just the right moment, the 21st vignette, “New Sound,” closes with an extended, meaningless freestyle trade-off between three characters that would be far too long even at half its current length. It’s a major miscalculation by Moeller, as it kills all momentum going into the play’s last 10 minutes. This vignette has a place in A Live Mixtape, but it should be completely reworked for any future productions.
From lighting to blocking to props, director Bruce A. Lemon Jr. makes several choices that serve the material well. Of particular note are the use of mobile chain-link fencing to form a cage, and having actors at the back of the house inject some Greek chorusy gasping in response to onstage action. Ivan Robles’s sound design is also worthy of mention ― good enough, in fact, that we’d like there to be a bit more of it (not louder, more).
Bookend a line from an early vignette, “We make the same songs over and over, and we wonder why no one’s listening,” with a line in the finale, “These stories need to be told over and over and over again,” and you have a mission statement for A Live Mixtape. It’s no paradox, because, as Moeller says, we should consider and reconsider the types of people populating the margins of our humanity until there are no margins. It’s debatable how much of a contribution A Live Mixtape can make to that change, but it can’t hurt, and there’s no question that Moeller’s mission is a good one.
A Live Mixtape at California Repertory ― Cal State Long Beach
Times: Wed.–Sat. 7:30 p.m. and Sun. 2:00 p.m.
The show runs through March 23.
Details: (562) 985-5526, CALREP.ORG
Venue: CSULB University Theater (South Campus), Long Beach
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