michel castillo

Talented. But are they universal?

In the world premiere of Yussef El Guindi's "The Talented Ones" at Artists Rep, flashes of daring, and longing for more

The tomatoes are rinsed, the lasagna’s ready to go, the beers are out. Cindy’s husband is late for dinner, but in The Talented Ones, Yussef El Guindi’s new play that had its world premiere Saturday night at Artists Repertory Theatre, their guest Patrick is more than happy to chat while Cindy finishes the preparations. She confesses a childhood dream, he encourages her, they laugh. There’s a spark there. There’s familiarity in the way the lights come up mid-conversation, the actors munching on real veggies: it’s the kind of everyday platform we’re used to the theater using to catapult us into deeper questions, explorations of ideas that are inevitably billed as universal.

Khanh Doan, John San Nicolas, and Madeleine Tran in “The Talented Ones.” Photo: Brud Giles

The problem with the idea of “universality” in art has been widely acknowledged: what people generally mean by it is something that is written by and about straight white men. They are the generic, universal mode of drama—everyone else is embellishment, specificity. Artists Rep consistently and admirably resists falling into this trap when marketing its intentionally diverse seasons: The Talented Ones, directed by Jane Unger, is not underlined for its status within the season as An Immigrant Play, but presented as a dark comedy about that most universal of topics (at least in this country, where “universal” and “America” are basically synonyms), the American Dream. This balance between universality and specificity—of being a story about everyone, but also about a narrow slice of human experience—is also one that El Guindi strives to strike within the play itself.

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‘In the Heights’: Overheated, undercooked

Stumptown Stages' production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning musical fails to ignite

It’s hot in the Heights. It’s summer, and many of the apartments in Nueva York’s working class Washington Heights neighborhood — home to mix of very different Latino cultures: Dominican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, more — lack air conditioning. Neighbors swelter on stoops, score cafe con leche at the bodega, frequent the salon and the frozen treat vendor.

The heat is on in their lives, too. The family owned taxi company can barely pay its drivers (and this was before Uber!). Nina, the pride of the ‘hood, a smart student who got into Stanford, returns home for the summer sweltering under the pressure of a secret disappointment. Another is falling behind in her rent.

Stumptown Stages' 'In the Heights' closes this weekend at Brunish Theater.

Stumptown Stages’ ‘In the Heights’ closes this weekend at Brunish Theater.

That’s the colorful, heated world of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakthrough musical,  whose sold-out run ends May 1 at Portland5’s Brunish Theater. Miranda’s affectionate evocation of the neighborhood next door to the one he grew up in, along with its authentically multicultural musical mashup of salsa, hip hop and more, immerses the audience in a richly evoked world we want to know more about.

One of the first musicals to successfully bring hip hop to Broadway, In the Heights (which collected four 2008 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, not to mention a smattering of Olivier Awards for a British run) sometimes pulls it off so adeptly that it makes me wonder what took so long (well, not really — much of American theater until very recently has been effectively an apartheid zone) to bring this powerfully musical style to theater. Rap’s hardly much of a leap from other musicalized theater-speech, from recitative to sprechstimme, singspiel to Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs. The hip hop elements here evoke the Heights in our ears just as Demetri Paviatos’s vibrant set does for our eyes.

But like other shows, from Kurt Weill’s Street Scene to David Hare’s recent Behind the Beautiful Forevers,  this one focuses so much on limning a world that it fails to tell a compelling story. Miranda embarked on In the Heights when he was a college sophomore at the beginning of this century, and as with many first plays or novels or symphonies, its creator’s attempt to cram everything he loves about the ethnically diverse upper Manhattan neighborhood (which he even covered as a student journalist for a summer) leaves too little time or room to sufficiently develop any of its characters and their stories.

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