After a five-year hiatus, Taper, Too returns with a double bill of accessible and modestly successful Latino-driven projects. The primary enjoyment comes from watching the fine cast deliver highly polished, ardent performances that supersede the overwriting and the lack of a good match between the pieces. The two works are directed at very different audiences, even though both feature Latino characters coming of age. Both plays are stylized, yet neither is very bold in structure, theme, or content. They offer a pleasant, if unadventurous, unsurprising evening.
“Black Butterfly…” is constructed from poems and stories told from the point of view of adolescent girls growing up in East L.A. These are performed by five accomplished actresses, portraying characters who age from 12 to 16. Central figure Raquel (Justina Machado) opens the piece by explaining that her teacher asked her to write about life in East L.A., an assignment the girl found odd since, “We’re not even famous.”
Her friends include the precocious Monica (Christina Malpero), who calls her poems “essays,” boy-crazy Jasmine (Zilah Mendoza), angry but loving Dolores (Cristina Frias), and overweight Sylvia (Carla Jimenez). Each of the zestful performers is given a chance to shine, but Jimenez steals the show with Sylvia’s stories about ruining her mother’s beloved velvet couch and dealing with firefighters who arrive when her mom sets fire to a mattress in the back yard.
Overall, the material is fairly generic and not particularly dramatic, and the piece could certainly benefit from some strategic excising. But the schoolkids for whom this show was developed will enjoy having their neighborhood and their lives depicted by this likable ensemble when this P.L.A.Y. production tours the public schools.
Creator and director Luis Alfaro touches on some of the darker subjects — abuse, teen motherhood — that tend to overwhelm characterizations of inner-city youth, but the show manages to be serious while also remaining fundamentally light-hearted and occasionally sweetly lyrical. Set designer Christopher Acebo and costume designer Candice Cain use strong, bright colors — green, orange, red, purple — that fit well with the spirited nature of the work.
“Drive My Coche,” written by Roy Conboy, is much more of a play than “Black Butterfly.” It’s a nicely crafted two-character memory drama, and, again, extremely well performed. Jesse Borrego portrays Bill, who introduces and punctuates the tale with some evocative poetic narration, spoken directly into a microphone with bass-heavy jazz playing in the background. Bill looks back on 1970 and re-creates a pivotal time in his life, when he was 18 years old and had two loves, his vintage Chevy, named “La Bamba,” and a girl named Kathy (Ara Celi).
What begins as an innocent-enough love story takes more significant, sophisticated shape as Bill begins counting down the days to his draft hearing. Projections of Vietnam images flicker on a large wall in the background, providing essential context, and it turns out that Vietnam hangs over Kathy almost more forcefully than it does over Bill.
Intelligently and simply directed by Diane Rodriguez, using Acebo’s effectively adapted set and a strong sound design from Michael Hooker, “Drive My Coche” is a small, touching piece of work, and Borrego and Celi both deliver deeply expressive performances without ever going over the top. If anything, the show is a bit restrained, and becomes fuzzy at its conclusion.