The long-awaited new play by Luis Valdez is both a creative and messy retelling of the life of California bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, recalled as both a ruthless killer and defender of the then-Mexican territory. In the play he comes across mostly as a womanizer and confused leader.
In an interview in the program, Valdez calls “Bandito!” an “historia,” a genre he invented loosely based on a medieval Spanish tradition where he substituted politics for religion. In essence, he’s trying to compress music, myth, history, theatricality and politics into one ball. As directed in an over-the-top style by Jose Luis Valenzuela, there’s more spectacle than drama, more shouting than true emotion.
The story begins March 19, 1875, with the hanging of Vasquez for murder. Once one makes sense of the lighting and fog effects, the mixed acting styles and the digressions, the evening becomes Vasquez’s reflective history during the minutes it takes him to die.
The first act in particular has problems. While a program essay by Jose Antonio Burciaga clearly shows the cultural and political events that shaped Vasquez into an ideological leader who used banditry to make a point, the play itself focuses on Vasquez’s running from the law and womanizing on the way. Although actor A Martinez fights to give his character life and likability, events make him unappealing.
Adding to the confusion is Valdez’s laying of mythological elements into the mix. An impresario, played in a kind of parody of the devil by Clive Revill, makes a wager with Vasquez that he’ll not make it out alive. Vasquez figures he’ll use the money to buy guns and start a revolution.
Vasquez’s mistress, Rosario (Saundra Santiago), wife of his cohort Abdon Leiva (Enrique Castillo), announces she’s pregnant with Vasquez’s baby; the baby , besides becoming a problem for Vasquez, comes to symbolize his hope for California staying Mexican. (California was deeded to the U.S. in 1848.)
Nowhere does Vasquez speak to people with a true sense of social urgency and purpose; he merely gives orders to a few men and casts his eye to the women. Playwright Valdez himself is known as a magnetic and forceful orator, yet Valdez’s protagonist in the play is never given an opportunity to speak similarly on the issues of the day.
The second act brings partial redemption to the effort when the playwright focuses on Vasquez’s relationship to Rosario and the problems it brings. Here, events become human. The audience can follow what’s happening. Vasquez’s dilemmas grow from inside his camp and out.
Also impressive is Santiago as Rosario. She believably shows the daughter of landed Mexican gentry as someone whobrims with sympathy and passion for Vasquez and his cause — enough to compromise her marriage and relationship to her father. Still, one does not leave the theater believing Vasquez a great visionary missed by the history books.
As for the songs, with lyrics by Valdez and music by Lalo Schifrin, several need rethinking. A few stop the action, such as “Ballad of a Whore Cut Down in Her Prime.” The song appears near the end, and while it is the most accomplished musically, displaying Holley’s magnificent voice, it has little connection to the story’s movement and becomes one more divergence.
“Viene la Muerte” has the ensemble passionately singing what seems to be a cloned revolutionary song from “Les Miserables.” All that’s missing is the barricade. “Posse Song” reverberates with unintentional humor.
Victoria Petrovich’s set astounds and awes. Dry ice fog spews at a moment’s notice when needed. Geoff Korf’s accomplished lighting assists in letting action jump to a new scene.
Costume designer Julie Weiss clearly had a dream budget that allows the numerous cast members to be clothed with flair. Her designs succeed. Jon Gottlieb’s sound design was occasionally off in volume on press night, but nonetheless he brings in background sounds to lend the flavor of the old West.
In the end, one can only encourage Valdez and company to trim and focus — perhaps a more magnetic Vasquez can yet emerge.