Review by Ryan Vandehey (age 30), and Leilani (age 8) on behalf of PDX Kids Calendar
Photos by Russell Young
Arriving at SE Portland’s Milagro Theatre for their new production “Lazarillo” neither of us were sure what to expect. The play is based on a 16th-Century Spanish Novel banned during the Inquisition, and transplanted to Puerto Rico and the Bronx in the 1980s. As we settled into our seats, a smoke machine filled the stage with an ominous haze, and a vintage boombox blared hip-hop from the center of a New York City streetcorner. The lights dimmed, and when they came back up we were greeted with the play’s protagonist; hanging upside down from the chainlink fence was Lazaro de Patillas (but everyone calls him Lazarillo), a young Puerto Rican man who has found himself adrift in New York City.
Following Milagro Theatre’s embracing of bilingual theatre, Lazarillo speaks a mixture of English and Spanish (though non-Spanish speakers needn’t worry about losing the thread of the story), and he doesn’t know how he’s found himself in this position. We quickly learn that this is an allegory for his life so far; when he manages to get back on his feet, a procession of masked circus men appears and accuses him of a crime. It seems the manager of a Bronx restaurant has disappeared, and everyone has an idea who may be responsible … Lazarillo.
It is here the physicality and the comedy of the play rises to the surface. The entire cast has a background in physical theatre, and it shows in the choreography and the expressiveness of the staging. It is a small stage, but the actors manage to travel from one corner to the next, and the story is told as much through body language as through words. As Lazarillo fights through a literal circus, protesting his innocence, he finally breaks free and finds himself standing in front of the audience. He stops, the circus disappears, and Lazarillo begins to recount how he has arrived here.
He flashes back to his birth in Puerto Rico (a brilliant piece of minimalist set design), the loss of his father, his emigration to America and his long-suffering mother’s string of odd jobs as she attempts to provide for her son. When she remarries and he loses his stepfather, Lazarillo is cast off on his own, to find his fortune and learn lessons from his First Guardian: a blind homeless man who refuses to even speak to him until Lazarillo learns English.
Through all of this, Lazarillo (brilliantly performed by Carlosalexis Cruz) is the only character whose face is visible, allowing us to watch the full range of his journey through despair, hope, and disappointment. All of the other characters are portrayed by an ensemble cast who rotate costumes along with masks; some resemble animals, some are caricatures of human features, and though the half-masks allow an impressive range of expression, none of the other characters are identifiable for more than a few scenes, putting the audience on the same level as Lazarillo as he drifts from one guardian to the next, searching for success and happiness but never quite feeling like he belongs.
For all the social issues tackled by this play, it never fails to entertain. The script is lively and the jokes are sharp (if a little broad). The physical staging is impressive, and the nearly-sold-out show closed to thunderous applause from adults and children alike. We both loved it.