As the opening salvo of its inaugural World Stage Festival, the recently reconstructed Los Angeles Theater Center (the New LATC) showcased Lonnie Carter’s engrossing 2003 Obie Award-winning sojourn into the oppressive life but heroic spirit of a diminutive Filipino migrant worker. Adapted from a short story by blacklisted Filipino-American writer Carlos Bulosan (1911-56), “The Romance of Magno Rubio” is highlighted by helmer Loy Arcenas’ robust, stylized staging, featuring a talented, energetic five-man ensemble.
Set in the agricultural regions of Depression-era California, Carter’s one-act chronicles the indomitable dreams of love and romance that drive the actions of Magno Rubio (Jojo Gonzalez), who is constantly mocked by his co-workers for his 4-foot-6-inch stature and a countenance that is “dark as a coconut ball, with a head small, and limbs like a turtle.”
Offering a captivating glimpse into the toil-driven but humor-filled struggles of Magno and his fellow Filipino workers, the tale is projected in self-narrated story-theater-style verse. Arcenas expands the activities with nonstop action, incorporating generous infusions of music, percussion, dance, rap, martial arts and ritual movement. Abetting the proceedings are the creative sounds and movement of Fabian Obispo and Kristin Jackson, respectively.
Within the flurry of onstage action, nothing distracts from the central character. Gonzalez invests Jojo with a tangible purity, represented by his total inability to understand the foolishness of his tragic quest to wed his correspondence sweetheart, Clarabelle, a 6-foot-tall blonde con woman from Arkansas (sensually voiced by Ramon De Ocampo) who is constantly demanding that Magno send her money.
Utilizing few props and set pieces, Arcenas cleverly moves the time forward over a nearly four-year period, underscoring Magno’s deepening financial commitment to Clarabelle, who keeps promising to be his bride. Arcenas creates evocative, shifting moods of humor, ridicule, anger and empathy, as Magno’s fellow immigrant co-workers grow increasingly aware that the inevitable conclusion to this affair can only result in tragedy for their diminutive friend.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Serving as principal narrator, Arthur T. Acuna’s Nick is quite believable as the poetic, educated farm laborer who is trying to make the best of his lack of intellectual opportunity. His gentle interactions with Magno as he pens his illiterate pal’s love letters offer a testament to the strength of comradeship even in the bleakest of circumstances.
Paolo Montalban is comically menacing as the strapping Claro, Magno’s pen pal rival for Clarabelle’s affections. One of the show’s highlights is the comedia-esque slow-motion brawl between Claro and Magno.
Bernardo Bernardo, as the homesick cook Prudencio, and De Campo, as fun-loving, musically gifted Atoy, complete this synergistic ensemble.