By Marilyn Lester . . .
From time to time, not knowing what really to expect, a reviewer can be astonished in a very, very good way. Los Otros (The Others) at the A.R.T./New York Theatres is such a case. The musical by Tony Award nominee Ellen Zitzhugh (book and lyrics) and music by five-time Tony Award nominee Michael John LaChiusa, packs a punch. The memorable talent of all concerned, particularly by leads Luba Mason and Caesar Samayoa, has yielded a work that’s greater than the sum of its parts—a creation that’s well-worth seeing.
Los Otros is a testament to perseverance. The first iteration of the work was in 2008, as Tres Niñas, which led to a production of a revised version in 2012 at LA’s Mark Taper Forum. More revision resulted in a 2017 premier at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore. In this production, the work has again been retooled, yielding what is now a finessed and arresting piece of theater.
Lessa musical and more a song cycle, Los Otros is sung-through to melodic story-songs, with limited narrative. The piece weaves a tale of two Californians, Lillian and Carlos, who live very different realities. Yet, their destinies are bound by an interconnected story that’s slowly revealed as the work progresses. Los Otros begins with an introductory prelude, effectively sung a cappella, in Spanish (although the main body of the work is in English). For those who know the language, these brief words offer hints about the stories to be unfolded.
Luba Mason as Lillian and Caesar Samayoa as Carlos couldn’t be more perfect in their roles. Such is their authenticity and commitment, that they are deeply embedded in character. The sheer energy of their performances, equally matched in skill, is a wonder to behold. Although crafted with excellence by all involved, it’s the strength of these two performers who give Los Otros its ultimate power. Their stories are intensely interesting rather than compelling, and the conclusion offers no big bang at the end, but the quiet and thoughtful resolution is moving—and deeply satisfying at the hands of these consummate actors.
Carlos and Lillian alternate in relating their respective stories, which span from 1933 to 2000. In 1933, in the wake of a terrible, devastating hurricane, Carlos’ mother takes her four-year old son and crosses the border from Mexico to California. He humorously says, “If my mother hadn’t wrestled with that storm–-and with a four-year-old boy–– me––I would not have been a part of that wave of gay Mexican accountants who breached the border.” Carlos’ sexuality informs the rest of his story as he eventually becomes an American citizen and betters himself pursuing the American Dream. A scene about the end of World War II is especially stirring, not only because a terrible conflict has ended, but because we learn that Carlos’ two older brothers, who did not emigrate, fought in the war under the Mexican flag. This scene also underscores the poignancy of the theme that unavoidably runs throughout much of Los Otros, that of the immigrant Mexican inhabiting a very white world.
Lillian’s trajectory (loosely based on Fitzhugh’s life) is one of downward mobility. In 1952, the oldest of three close sisters, adolescent Lillian is bored. There’s nothing much to do, but the girls hide in the woods and watch as Mexican immigrants try to enter the country, having hitched onto trains. They even leave food for a little Mexican family hiding out in a cave until it’s safe for them to move on. Eventually Lillian has two failed marriages and two daughters, and not much of a life, although with husband number two, she does travel to Mexico and smuggles in a Mexican nanny. Eventually, Lillian finds work in a bar and descends into alcoholism. Carlos meanwhile has achieved success and finds a long-term partner in George—who turns out to be Lillian’s now out, second ex-husband.
Mason and Samayoa exude an energy level that sustains the work, coupled with canny direction by Noah Himmelstein. It’s not just how he moves his actors throughout the minimal set (Junghyun Georgie Lee), but in the choreography of the movement. The scene played out as the hurricane rages in Mexico and one in which a drunk Lillian seduces and relieves a young Mexican immigrant of his virginity are elegant and graceful in their fierceness and intemperance. But, ultimately, Los Otros is the kind of work that needs the level of vocal, acting and directing talent on display here to succeed. In itself, the piece is sturdy enough but can be much less affecting with lesser lights presenting it. Fortunately, in this limited run, the result is outstanding.
Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations are realized in the top-notch playing of musical director J. Oconer Navarro on piano, Cole Davis on bass guitar and upright bass and Meghan Doyle with three types of guitar. Costumer Alejo Vietti created effective, if standard attire for “Carlos,” excelling in beautifully simple but elegant and evocative clothing for the various stages in “Lillian’s” life. Adam Honoré (lights) and Ken Travis (sound) also helped contribute to the overall artistry of Los Otros.
Los Otros plays a limited run through Saturday, October 8 at A.R.T/New York Theatres (Mezzanine Theatre), 502 West 53rd Street, NYC. Running time is about 85 minutes.
Visit www.PremieresNYC.org for more information and tickets.
Photos: Russ Rowland