Oil on Canvas: Latino Landscape #1, an original play written and directed by Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Theater Arts Director Vincent Toro with original choreography by the Guadalupe Dance Company, is a production chock-full of elements to like and admire. It’s energetic, relevant, oftentimes funny, very moving, artfully staged, and genuinely committed to its themes of youthful idealism, education, and social justice. The October 10 “Community Night” opening played to an enthusiastic, nearly full house. And the playwright himself addressed the audience beforehand, enthusing that “wherever art is happening, war is not.”
... Except where war is happening, as is the case with this play; the Second Gulf War ricochets around and through Oil on Canvas like a bullet. The story — part family drama, part anti-war protest, part portrait of the artist as a young pistolera — is set in current-day San Antonio. And for a city whose poor and recently arrived view military service as a major route to honor and advancement and out of poverty, the socioeconomics and human cost of war is urgently worth exploring.
Oil on Canvas makes no bones about its politics, and pulls no punches when it comes to excoriating military recruitment tactics; Toro points out the bitter ironies of becoming “government property,” and criticizes the substandard educational institutions and opportunities that shepherd vulnerable young men and women toward war. He also examines the sexist double-standards within some traditional Mexican-American families, and the frustrations of girls and young women who yearn to achieve something — anything — beyond casa y familia.
Toro dramatizes his misgivings through Carlos and Claribel, teenagers with major angst over their respective futures. Claribel, played by Denisse Ibarra, a young actor of real intensity, is a talented artist whose paintings and musings provide the play’s framing device. She works devotedly at building her portfolio so that she can escape to New York City, or at least Houston. Smart, philosophical, and giving off righteous indignation like a shower of bright sparks, Claribel chafes under the lowered expectations of her parents, who show little interest in her ambitions and urge her to be a good girl and not get into any trouble.
Her older brother Carlos, a recent high-school graduate, is as affable and softhearted as Claribel is steely and confrontational. As portrayed by the sensitive and likable Guadalupe Zapata, Carlos alone understands and encourages his little sister’s artistic vision, while harboring no specific ambitions of his own. The kids’ father dreams of his son going out for college b-ball and eventually playing for the beloved Spurs, but Carlos, not even the best on his neighborhood team, is far from convinced.
I think you see where this is going.
And it’s to the credit of the talented playwright/director, the energetic cast, the vital subject matter, and the accomplished Guadalupe Dancers (who act out each of Claribel’s scene-opening paintings, often beautifully and to terrific music) that Oil on Canvas doesn’t collapse into rote, issues-based-TV-movie territory very early on. Saintly Carlos’s military experience and his subsequent descent into a PTSD shadow world are heartbreaking, and Claribel’s quest for her own education strikes home as a truly revolutionary act. Vincent Toro, a New Yorker and veteran of the Urban Pop Festival, the Howl Festival, and INTAR’s New Works Series, as well as a published poet, radiates unquestionable and creditable passion through his characters. Characters that, as the emotional temperature and political fervor of Oil on Canvas ratchet up, all begin to sound a) pedagogical and b) alike.
This may be by design; a bewildering set piece midway through the play, with Claribel confronted by angry characters from one of her freakier paintings, signals that Toro has some Brechtian/Ionesco-like aspirations toward the surreal. Mind you, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and to show an artist looking deep within herself and “creating her own reality” is a valid narrative choice. But in terms of scale and proportion and other pretty important values that support a tight narrative arc … well, it goes a little off the rails. And the more-than-proverbial gun in Act 2 remains curiously devoid of real menace.
Also, there are moments wherein the dialogue is stiff and choppy, which wasn’t helped by occasional opening-night jitters on the parts of some of the less veteran performers. However, two actors in dual roles, Apollo Campos as Tomas/College Admissions Officer and Mark Riojas as Carlos’s friend Victor and Army recruiting officer, exude a comfortable, lived-in confidence and provide some genuine nuance. Toro’s development of the older characters reveals a promising knack for complexity, too — the overprotective parents who have worked their asses off to get out of the West Side each bear refracted aspects of their children’s temperaments. Claribel’s hardnosed pride can be seen in her mother, Marta (played with increasing relatability as the show goes on by Suzan Roig), while the young artist’s creative energy can be traced to her dreamy father. This revelation, which comes perhaps rather late in the play, struck me as both unexpected and touching.
All this is remediable, I think, and it’s a play that should be performed, rehearsed, and seen; all theater is a work in progress, and Oil on Canvas, like Claribel, is worthy of development. •
Oil on Canvas: Latino Landscape #1 (Claribel y Carlos)
8pm Fri & Sat, 3pm Sun
Through Oct 19
Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center