There is a sudden interest in all things gay and Latino nowadays, and playwright A. B. Lugo seems to be cashing in on the cavalcade. In his timely play, Banjee, he pushes a few buttons and pokes fun at a world that mainstream America doesn't get to hear very much about: straight Latin men who do gay things for money. Looking for the drama of telenovelas in a language you can understand? This might be your show.
Angel (Indio Melendez) is a security guard in New York by night. At least that's what he's been telling his partner, Marlena (Marylin Torres). Instead, he is hustling in midtown bars for money. But then he leaves a matchbook from his regular hangout around the apartment for Marlena's nosy best friend Ileana (Iris Aay-Almonte) to discover; the truth comes out when the curious girlfriend pays a visit to the club. She finds that he is a well-known celebrity around seedier circles for the size of his manhood. Upon confrontation, Angel must choose between a continued life of prostitution and being a partner and father to their young daughter (which means getting a job Marlena approves of).
The show opened in high bravado as a go-go dancer (played by Sam Hale) danced provocatively (choreography by Thomas C. Adams).
Will Sierra played Angel's best friend, Tony, with a classic urban grace that can only be found in Manhattan's uptown. Every other sound out of his mouth was "word?", portraying an innocence that was immediately appealing.
Stephen Beckford was utterly comical in all of his characters (a total of about five), which included a loud and uncoordinated drag queen. In one scene, his character clumsily walks into the bar and mistakes the wandering Marlena for a badly put-together drag queen. He tells her that he just got paid and that he could now afford to pay for Angel's services, which is how Marlena confirms her suspicions.
Marylin Torres played a very human Marlena, although at times her volume was so low her lines could not be heard from the second row.
Johnathan Cedano (who recently made an impression with his role as Jordan in Doric Wilson's Street Theater, for TOSOS II) played a man who falls in love with Tony but eventually gets dumped. Charming and convincing, his performance inspired a desire to see his role expanded. This actor was the most crisp with his onstage moments.
However, the bona fide stars of the show were Aay-Almonte and Andres Rodriguez (as the club's bartender), whose performances soared to such comedic heights that several times during the evening they brought the play to a complete halt due to audience laughter.
The relationship between Aay-Almonte and Melendez was fun to watch. Like a ballerina of Latin drama, she rose and fell with her inflections and waved her arms violently to make her points. This actress demonstrated a delightful energy and proved herself worthy of her own daytime talk show.
Rodriguez stole the show, serving as jester, therapist, entertainer, confidant[e], and mother to Angel and Tony. This actor is clearly the Latin Harvey Fierstein if there ever was one, with his bold dialect and raspy voice. Every scene he was in was pure gold, without once upstaging the principals.
Lugo's wit and drama are strong and innovative. Certainly bold, there were moments of such supreme frankness in his text that his audience seemed thoroughly engrossed throughout the first act.
The only real flaw with Lugo's play is that it has more storylines than an episode of Knot's Landing. The relationship between Marlena and Angel is very interesting. Focusing on any other characters in too much detail seemed to take away from the audience's sympathy for the two leads.
Costume design, by Francis Hendy and Gaelyn and Cianfarani, was marvelous. Particularly the Jennifer Lopez outfits donned by Aay-Almonte, which included a rag doll dressed exactly like her. Other noteworthy costumes included Rodriguez's drag outfit and the hustler's street wear, which looked as though they were riding the uptown A to infinity.
The layout for the set design was created by Findlay. It included a stage that was half Angel and Marlena's apartment and half the club. George Zavala constructed the set to a Virgo's perfection.
The sound consisted of occasional club music provided by FindKind Productions, Inc. The lighting design (which was not credited in the program) perfectly provided a realistic ambiance for the bar scenes.
With a minor facelift there is no reason this production could not enjoy a more ambitious run in another venue.
Lighting: 1/Sound: 2
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Copyright 2004 Jade Esteban Estrada