The world premiere production of Heather Woodbury’s epic “Tale of 2Cities: An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks,” presented as part of UCLA Live’s fifth Intl. Theater Festival, is a reminder of what a vibrant and endlessly inventive thing theater can be — a phantasmagoria of dramatic and structural ambition. This is not to say that it’s perfect — it has been pulled together from Woodbury’s previous 10-hour solo version, and not everything fits comfortably in this more compact form — but it is a triumph of unfettered creativity, given boisterous life via director Dudley Saunders and a gloriously gifted cast.
The play is presented in two 2½-hour parts: “Grifters, Drifters and Dodgers” and “Mega Mixicana Waltz.” The overarching theme is how the transplanting of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles and the subsequent creation of Dodger Stadium destroyed several neighborhoods in the Chavez Ravine area, and how this one devastating act affected generations of people on both coasts for decades. All the actors portray multiple characters, the dates shifting from scene to scene, and sometimes action in two time periods is presented simultaneously, woven together as the past continually affects the future. (Culture Clash explored a similar theme in “Chavez Ravine” at the Taper in 2003).
In 1947 Los Angeles, well-intentioned New Yorker Miriam Flieschman (Woodbury) arrives to help teach the children of La Loma, one of the mostly Mexican neighborhoods in the Chavez Ravine area. She grows fond of young Gabriela (Diane Rodriguez), encouraging the girl to write about her life. Meanwhile, in the Hobo Ridge area overlooking La Loma, elderly Samuel Wentworth (Leo Marks) and Texan movie extra Edward Portnoy (Ed Vassallo) talk and philosophize as crazy religious zealot Delbert Dreyfus (Tracey A. Leigh) builds a towering sculpture.
In 2001 L.A., Gabriela has died in her home, and begins her afterlife as a ghost, waiting for her grandson Manuel (Michael Ray Escamilla) to find her body lying on the floor of her house. When DJ Manuel finally discovers her, he decides to create a musical mix as a tribute. As Manuel goes MIA, his ex-girlfriend Lavinia Esmeralda (Winsome Brown) tries desperately to contact him.
At the same time in New York, the elderly Miriam has been assaulted by a group of young women and is in a coma. She’s visited covertly by Angela De Mayo (Leigh), whom the police suspect of being responsible for the attack. Amiable cabbie Mike Rafferty becomes tangentially involved in the case by transporting both Angela and Richard (Vassallo), the detective who is in charge of investigating the crime. The twin disasters of the annihilation of La Loma and the horror of 9/11 connect and resonate.
Woodbury connects as the benign if ultimately powerless Miriam, and she gives the role a quiet dignity and pathos, particularly in a moment when Miriam finally realizes she is unhappy. Woodbury also has a facility with accents, and she invests smaller roles such as the gossipy hairdresser Viviana or an Armenian Counter Lady with precise and uncanny skill. Brown is similarly chameleonic, equally capable as the Hispanic Esmeralda and Cambodian immigrant Mae Pho. Rodriguez, unfortunately, never completely convinces as Gabriela.
Escamilla is superb as Manuel, an artistic soul whose attempt to create the tribute mix mirrors Woodbury’s creation of this play. A scene in which he recounts his first deejaying gig at a Hollywood club is an electrifying piece of acting. Marks brings a canny wryness and humanity to Samuel and Mike, and his furious despair as a fireman digging at the rubble of the Twin Towers is stunning in its raw emotion. Vassallo is a model of low-key diversity as tough-guy Richard and the obliquely cool Rabbi Dave, and his perf in a scene where Dave explains how baseball and feng shui are the same is an exquisite piece of work.
Even among this accomplished group, Leigh stands out as fantastic. She manages to give loony Delbert a consistent madness, and her acting as Angela is an expertly layered, three-dimensional wonder. A moment in which Angela relates a monologue about a trip to Coney Island is initially impressive for its speed and clarity of diction, but as she acts out all the characters she’s describing and never loses the persona of Angela telling the tale, it becomes a near miraculous moment of art.
Woodbury’s writing is masterful, thrillingly poetic and daring, and if occasionally she gets carried away, it’s OK — so do we. Saunders understands that the main thing in directing a work as complex as this is that it is comprehensible at all times to the audience, and generally he succeeds in this task. At the premiere, the lighting was intermittently laggard, with actors delivering their dialogue to the darkness, and the dates projected above the stage didn’t always match up with the scenes being enacted. Hedi el Kholti’s sound design is subtle and intriguing, but is sometimes mixed so low that it is barely discernible.