Tooth & Claw Comes to UCLA James Bridges Theater

Christina Montano

Written by Dale Reynolds, Senior Arts Critic, www.latinheat.com

Philadelphia-based playwright Michael Hollinger, 50, has a play from 2004 being given a five-performance run, while being recorded for a later radio and disk-release, at the James Bridges Theatre at UCLA, July 19-22, a production of Los Angeles Theatre Works.

Based on a true story, his “evolutionary” drama is set in the Galápagos Islands in the South Pacific, 605 miles west of Ecuador, made famous by Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

But what playwright Hollinger has done so dramatically is taken the scientific work of European and American doctors of science and brought in the painful human quality that highlights the conflicts between regular folk trying to make a living and the scientists whose interest lies in saving rapidly-depleted tortoises and sea-cucumbers species.

It’s an age-old conflict and as Hollinger’s play is 80% Spanish-speaking, it deals very much with that disconnect in social distinction in South America, as well as here.

One of the added difficulties in translating what is highly visual in his play into aural symbols is something director Jessica Kubzansky became aware of early on.  Hollinger is very clever in his use of English and Spanish, using key English words interspersed throughout, so that the challenge for us was to ‘see’ in our mind’s eye what we would ordinarily view on stage.  It was fun for me to ‘listen’ to it without visual aids.”

“This play means a great deal to me,” explains the playwright, “beginning with a fascination with the Darwinian political struggle today, the irony behind a battle between species over species.”

Eschewing the “Bad Fisherman” and “Good Scientists” fight that pits the two sides, he understood that theatre was a prime means of exploring empathy from very different points of view in the heated conflicts.  “It’s easy for us to condemn [the sea] hunters, but lose sight of their needs.  We in the U.S.A. speak from a fairly affluent position and easily condemn others [who differ].  It’s a political and social drama about this conflict which uses language – the rich use of it and the interplay between the spoken Spanish, English and Latin.”

Enter Stephanie Beatrize, who plays the Galápigian bi-lingual (and heavily-pregnant) secretary, Ana.  Beatrize, the offspring of a German/Jewish father and a Catholic Brazilian/Bolivian mother, was brought to Texas at the age of three, and graduated from Stevens College (Columbia, Missouri) in 2002.

Her professional acting-life includes three extraordinary years at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where she was cast asIsabella in Measure for Measure; Rosaline in Love’s Labor’s Lost; Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; and as the ingénue in Arthur Miller’s 1958 family-drama, A View From the Bridge – using an all- Latino cast, from which she earned terrific reviews.  She shot a pilot in Hollywood that didn’t sell and has a TV film in post-production (The Smart One), as well as a one-off role of Camilla Santiago in the just-finished series, The Closer.

Beatrize is an actor who does not allow her to be stereotyped only in Latina roles, a reflection, actually, on what is happening in American theatre today, where – ever so slowly – there is a shift in allowing minority actors to play mainstream leading roles.  Earlier this year when she stood out in an amusing Latino/Native American comedy,Culture Clash’s American Night, which played at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, and back in 2009, she played in Lydia at the Mark Taper Forum.

Another Latina connected to the event is Christina Montaño, a true hybrid American:  her mother is from Jalisco, Mexico, and her father is of Spanish/Native American heritage.  She is an Associate Producer at LATW, which means she oversees all the recorded plays from concept, through performance, to post-production.  As to how LATW will turn the visual into the aural, she explains that “We see every recorded play as Theatre of the Mind – you see it with your ears.  Because of changes in the business, Sound Effects and Foley artists are exemplars of a dying art, so they get to use their skills with us.”

The actors all work under a SAG-AFTRA Radio Contract, which allows for a one-week commitment for $440: two rehearsals, one tech rehearsal with sound effects, and five performances in front of a paying audience.  According to Ms. Beatrize, “The quick rehearsal time, condensed, allows for a pretty quick bonding experience, which can be a cool experience, a unifier of the company.  We help each other to win.”

This LATW production is a follow up to last May’s production of Hollinger’s 2005 musical drama, OPUS, proving their commitment to new plays, as well as their reputation for known and unknown classical plays.  If you can, go see/hear it at UCLA.

Tickets:  310-827-0889 or www.latw.org.  Performances are at Bridges Theatre/UCLA.  Parking lot 3.