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Tortilla Curtain

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Not to be left out of the current trend in bringing novels to visual artistic life, San Diego Repertory Theatre birthed its world premiere, Tortilla Curtain,  adapted from T.C. Boyle’s 1995 novel and transformed by award-winning playwright Matthew Spangler. Based on the reputations of author and playwright, the production had promise. Boyle’s novels number nearly two dozen, and his awards list includes some of the most prestigious. Spangler’s latest adaptive project, The Kite Runner, earned him the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle Award for Best Original Script and Best Production 2009.

Yet, this production does not measure up to the expectations. It lacks focus and employs stereotyped characters, and it does not provide new perspectives on the issues first presented in the novel, 17 years ago.

It echoes a possible question by a dedicated Mexican foodie who bites into a vegan taco. “Where’s the beef?”

The subject matter is certainly meaty enough, and it should be relevant to Southern California audiences today.

The story, set in Topanga Canyon country in the fall and winter of 1995, focuses on a Mexican couple, Cándido (Kinan Valdez) and América (Vivia Font), who live in the canyon streambed, and an American environmentalist, Delaney Mossbacher (Mike Sears), who lives with his wife Kyra Menaker-Mossbacher (Lisel Gorell-Getz) in a gated community atop the canyon. The Mexican people want to take part in the American dream. The gringos want to keep them out badly enough to build a fortress-like wall (a device both real and multi -symbolic) to reinforce the community’s privileged perspective. When Delaney runs over Cándido, the lives of the two men become suddenly intertwined, much to their displeasure. A host of weird coincidences, some involving the trickster coyote, help to weave a tangled tale.

As in the 2005 movie, Crash, which also used unlikely links between strangers, this is a situation ripe for showcasing the cultural and legal implications of cross border relations, and it deserves a recipe with significant and thoughtful interpretation.

Yet, this play did not communicate substance, settling instead for speaking in vaudevillian vignettes. The actors, with few exceptions, are acting. Arms flapping, voices speechifying, and bodies bustling about exaggerate rather than enlighten. Somehow, Director Sam Woodhouse either let it get away with them all or misconceived the effects. Some calm and simmer is certainly in order here.

The script may be the greater villain. Going from page to stage or scroll to screen, as recent movie reviewers have ranted, jeopardizes the original. Adapters tend to want to include every scene and dialogue, fearing that critical bits of information and motivation left on the cutting room floor would deprive the whole of its conceived flavor. Nevertheless, translating a work of art, whether in medium or in language, means losing something. It is a tricky business. Taking on the daunting project of reinterpretation means deciding what to chop, what to reduce, and what to conserve.

Writer Matthew Spangler could sever the elder sister, ex-wife-with-gigolo-boyfriend action, titillating as it is with Resurrección (Vivia Font) and the boyfriend’s (Miles Gaston Villanueva) attention-grabbing bit of dirty dancing. Hack and hew, too, Cándido and Delaney’s chance, almost-encounter at the local grocery store. Neither scene imparts anything of true value. Boil down the drawn-out homeowners’ meeting and the inane morning after the accident conversation between Delaney and Kyra. The former needs less to say more; the latter needs more to say.

Consider this. Just hours before he is squeezing fresh oranges, plucked from his own trees, for his wife’s breakfast juice, Delaney may have killed someone. Perhaps he would want to discuss that with his spouse, or even himself, or, preferably, someone in a position to help find and treat the victim. Instead, Delaney flares up the blender then goes for a hike because he cannot get the incident out of his mind, and it is causing a bit of writer’s block. Really? No self-respecting liberal would believe that rationale longer than it takes to dice a jalapeno. Instead, let us witness Delaney’s conflict with the philosophical (“What is the moral action to take here?”) versus the pragmatic (“I tried to help, but he refused.”). His decision may remain unaltered, but his process deserves illumination.

Take a cue from Vivia Font, whose América truly experiences the physical and psychological journey from hopeless poverty in her homeland to hope-filled hunger for new life on the other side of the border. Her elation at dawn, her exuberant, successful job hunt, and her thrilling hopefulness at the prospect of having a real house in the bright future ring true. All the more devastating, then, are the assaults—one by man, the other by nature—that rob her of much more than dreams. Font is real in the role, and her interpretations are the play’s highlights.

Sears, an experienced actor well known to local audiences, delivers a noble effort at depicting Delaney, but he is limited by the script and prevented from portraying what could be a sea change in his metamorphosis from liberal to conservative. What motivates that extreme conversion remains unclear, largely because it happens without obvious reflection or conscientious reason.

Valdez brings passion to his role as Cándido, and if he settles into the character instead of reacting to others’ views of the character, his lead would flesh out the conflicts of a man trying desperately to provide for a family in an unfamiliar and hostile land while keeping a dream alive.

David Meyers is a steady presence as Jack Jardine Sr., Delaney’s best friend, and his responses to his tyrannical teenage son, Jack Jr. (a highly exaggerated Jeremy Kahn) provide a modern take on the difficulties of modern child-parent relationships. Villanueva, who plays several roles, is seriously sinister as the bad gangbanger, but he, too, is more caricature than authentic. Gorell-Gertz needs more to work with in her character of Kyra. As is, she comes across as a selfish, whiney wife, more affect than affected.

The technical ensemble’s territory is more impressive. Projection and set by Ian Wallace add grand dimension and turf; Valerie Henderson’s costumes are spot on, and Ericka Moore’s rough and tumble choreography portrays Mother Nature’s rage.

This world premiere is more a worthy workshop in progress. Give it extra time in the kitchen, por favor.


Tortilla Curtain plays on San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum stage in downtown’s Horton Plaza through April 8.

Performances are Thurs-Sat at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. Some selected performances on weekends, Tues. & Wednesdays. Visit for specific days and times.

Tickets are $32 - $51; Student tickets are $18. Discounts available for groups, seniors, and military.

Four hours free parking in Horton Plaza Garage with theatre validation.

Reservations: or Box office (619) 544-1000.



Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.