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Wednesday, May 14 1997
Taking the Heat
Rosita's Jalapeno Kitchen. Written and directed by Rodrigo Duarte Clark. Starring Luz de la Riva. At El Teatro de la Esperanza, 2940 16th St. (at Capp), Second Floor, through May 24. Call 255-2320.

The lead character in Rosita's Jalapeno Kitchen starts the show by trying to send everybody home. "Lo siento very much, but Rosita's Kitchen is closed," she says, addressing the audience, adding that a strip-mall developer is buying the section of the Salsipuedes barrio where she runs her cafe. Then she starts to pack. Her kitchen is a warm space with bright pink walls and a flamy jalapeno pattern on the curtains, chairs, and barstools; against a rear window is a rusted gas stove. Unable to ignore a stranger, Rosita tells the audience that she's under pressure to sell out because everyone else on the street already has; she waves the contract papers but can't bring herself to sign; finally she hides them in the fridge.

This is a one-woman show, and Rosita tells her stories by imitating friends and family, meaning that a single performer not only plays more than one person but often plays more than one person at a time. The best example is a scene that has Tencho, an old chile gardener, recounting his dream of Rosita trying to hold off the developers' bulldozer with a frying pan. Luz de la Riva plays Rosita imitating Tencho imitating Rosita, and this tour de force is pulled off without a visible seam in either the acting or the script.

The only seam I noticed at all, in fact, was a faint lapse in conviction when Rosita spoke to imaginary characters, either on the phone or outside the cafe. But that's a quibble, because de la Riva's range of feeling is wider than most performers', and she turns a story of urban renewal into an emotional whirlwind. Anger is there, of course, but anger is easy; she's also strong with emotions like sadness and love. Rosita's back-story about romance and an arranged marriage in Mexico (which drove her to Salsipuedes, in the United States) might be the likeliest place for a comic show with a political charge to show evidence of dry rot; but it's one of de la Riva's most compelling scenes.

Another excellent scene is a long dream of Rosita's about the afterlife. Everything in heaven is white. The pale kitchen has an electric stove (bad for tortillas) and a fridge full of milk, mayonnaise, cauliflower, and tofu. The only place she can find a jalapeno is in hell, ruled by a reefer-smoking Satan who talks like a pachuco -- but if she indulges, she has to stay. "Crowded neighborhood," St. Peter warns, "poor air quality, unemployment. ... No art." Rosita indulges.

If it sounds like this show romanticizes Latino culture and pitches into easy targets like the strip mall -- well, it does. But Rosita is excellent company. Her character keeps the play alive with pure spirit, and even though she tries to evict everyone from her kitchen at first and her neighborhood itself (Sal-si-puedes means "get out if you can") no one in the audience really wants to leave.

-- Michael Scott Moore

In the House
Singer's Boy. By Leslie Ayvazian. Directed by Carey Perloff. Starring Olympia Dukakis, Gerald Hiken, Anne Pitoniak, Stephen Caffrey, and Michele Shay. Presented by the American Conservatory Theater at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Powell), through June 1. Call 749-2228.

Singer's Boy, premiering at the ACT, labels itself a "darkly comic fable for adults." This is as opposed to those sunny, fluffy pieces like The Little Mermaid, where a sea nymph sacrifices her voice, fins, and life for a self-absorbed prince. Singer's Boy takes images and dark humor from the fable genre, but the perky narrative that molds iconography into a bedtime story is left for the kiddies. This is for adults; we're too sophisticated for stories. All we need is the gingerbread house, a trapped woman, and a virile young man. Fill in the gaps with skittles of Beckett-esque dialogue and you have Singer's Boy. If this sounds harshly reductive, it is. Leslie Ayvazian's play distills mythic ingredients into 200-proof meaning; it's like moonshine -- you respect its strength, but it doesn't go down smoothly. The work is so self-consciously theatrical and metaphorical that it leaves the audience squirming for relief. Quirky humor and a solid cast, led by Olympia Dukakis, temper the potent potable, but not often enough.

Dukakis plays Grace, a sixtysomething hermit hiding from the world in a frame house overtaken by ivy. Distressed and disheveled, Grace is trapped in her role as her parents' caretaker. There's also a neighbor, a gadfly and sexpot called Singer. Grace's one retreat is dreaming about Cortez the conqueror and prattling on about the Aztec pyramids, all consumed with vegetation just like her own casa. (The conquering kudzu is revealed when the roof lifts off the interior set and the house spins around.) Grace's mother stumbles into the kitchen whispering to the audience that her daughter miscarried two children -- if Grace is obsessed with blood sacrifice, lost souls, and powerful women like Cortez's companion, La Malinche, there's a motive. Safe in her emotional prison, Grace has no need to leave the house -- until a young man (Singer's current boy toy) arrives and offers to cut the vines. But everyone stalls: Don't cut the roots, Grace screams; her father climbs on the roof; the Singer tries to tempt the boy away with fruit.

Grace's paralysis is communicated with frustrating repetition. "I've got to get out," she wails repeatedly. (You can sense the Godotian stage directions: She stays.) "That sentence is without meaning," her father observes astutely. Singer's Boy is afflicted with continuing gridlock, because the characters are motivated by what they represent, not who they are. Grace's father is the patriarchy; her mother, dependency; the Singer is the wild woman. We know these folks from the fairy-tale template, and, from the opening monologue, it's clear that Grace is gearing up to break her bonds. Grace needs out, freedom from her emotional cage. And in the end she scales her house to gaze up at a full-moon-and-bubbles night sky. "To ascend the steps of the pyramid is to embrace a cosmos sustained by sacrifice," Paul Walsh writes in the notes to the play. Sacrifice is integral to a woman's nature, but if you've read The Little Mermaid you already knew that.


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