Clash Acts

You are in flavor country: Marco Rodriguez, Rhianna Mack, Miranda Martinez, Joseph McConnell and Oscar Contreras star in Pico de Gallo.

In one boffo two-hour show, Pico de Gallo, now playing at the Ice House Cultural Center in Oak Cliff, the tiny Martice Enterprises acting troupe delivers more sassy, funny, provocative entertainment than many local theaters do with big budgets and huge productions in a whole season. Without even a stage to stand on--their acting space is simply the floor of the Ice House art gallery--Martice's five young actors play a dozen different characters and bring scenes vividly to life with a few simple costumes and a handful of props. Short on funds they may be, but man, they're loaded with talent. They're brash, too, daring the audience to confront issues of political correctness and to laugh together at the same ethnic and cultural issues that tend to divide us.

In a series of original sketches, Pico de Gallo sharply skewers stereotypical notions about what it means to be African-American, Latino or gay (with much overlapping of subcultures). Hosting the evening is "Chula Cholula," an elegant "entrepreneur-ess" played in gorgeous drag by Oscar Contreras, who also co-wrote and directed the show. In Chula's Tex-Mex restaurant of life, the pico de gallo is more than a spicy side dish. It's a metaphorical recipe for community understanding, calling for a variety of flavors.

The "vanilla and chocolate extracts," for instance, are a white guy named Terrence (Joseph McConnell), who dons a 'do-rag and speaks ebonics, and his uptight black date (Rhianna Mack) who's preppy and proud of it. "You're too black for me!" she blurts. Only when the two crack the facades and embrace their true identities do they find each other attractive again.

Of the many characters the immensely likable Marco Rodriguez inhabits in Pico de Gallo, he gets the most out of "La Cha Cha Cha," a "psychic curandera and bruja extraordinaire." Wearing a tight denim miniskirt, a feathered headpiece and one gold tooth, Rodriguez is a riot as he channels spirits and hectors various audience members about their insecurities and possible infidelities. He puts a "get rid of the puta spell" on one and then reveals that the secret "ingredients-es" of his potion include the DNA of certain city council members and some "Dollar Store glitter eyeshadow." Used judiciously, Cha Cha promises, her mixture works on a not-nice woman by "making her pootietang turn to Cheez-Whiz."

Rodriguez and his co-writers, Contreras, Israel Luna and Christopher Espinosa, don't play every scene so outrageously for laughs. Pico de Gallo has its surprisingly poignant moments, too, such as the monologue by McConnell as a little boy locked in the bathroom of an efficiency apartment while his abusive mom rages outside. The kid escapes domestic torment by creating his own soap opera plots. "God is watching down on us like we watch the soaps on TV," he says. "He's our Simon Cowell and Judge Judy." Life must be filled with conflict, as when his mom threatens him "with a knife or fork or hot curler," or else God wouldn't tune in. The scene plays like a fresh version of Lily Tomlin's sad-funny wonder child Edith Ann.

Themes about Latino life dominate the show. A sketch about "Coconuts Anonymous" addresses those who are brown on the outside, white underneath. The "quatro-step program," explains bleached-blond meeting leader Chadwick (Rodriguez), "is the first step to Hispanic happiness." Chadwick gives his testimony about coming out to his parents as a "coconut." "I am a white man trapped in a brown body! The only menudo I liked was the boy band."

Rodriguez returns in Act 2 as "Señor Queso," undocumented worker and peddler of cheese products. This scene is another that starts as comedy and gradually makes a transition to social statement as a story unfolds of the man's terrifying trip in the overcrowded truck of a "coyote" bringing Mexicans across the border. Hoping to return to Mexico to marry his beloved when he saves enough dollars, Señor Queso says he is nostalgic for the smell of his homeland: "Like dirt, like solid earth...mixed in with a rotten huevo."

The writing in Pico de Gallo skillfully blends the barbs of satire with serious commentary. When Rhianna Mack appears as "The Reverend Jambalaya Dumplin'," hawking religious products like the "Hallelujah Healing Holy Helmet" and the "Scratch 'n' Sniff Jesus," the jokes can be interpreted as jabs at money-grubbing TV preachers (white or black), celebrities selling their overpriced gewgaws on QVC or the gullible schlubs who buy the worthless junk. Whatever, it's bright and funny.

The show ends with the cast--forgot to mention Miranda Martinez, who's great as the mythical witch La Llorona--shouting all-too-familiar racist and homophobic curses at each other. They calm down and explain in free verse their reasons for using insults "you can think but can't say." Then just when it's starting to feel like a high school citizenship class, up comes the voice of Lee Greenwood singing "God Bless the USA." Even with its serious messages about peace and harmony, Pico de Gallo refuses to the end to take itself too seriously.

Live from the Grand Central Terminal of terrible ideas comes Starlight Express, the latest disappointment making a whistlestop at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Let's see, how many train references apply to this stinkeroony about toy trains racing each other in an invisible 8-year-old's mind? Well, it definitely runs out of steam early on. It jumps the tracks. It is a train wreck.

See, the gimmick, which reeks of early-1980s roller disco, is that the trains are portrayed by heavily padded actors on roller skates. There's Rusty, the old steam engine, and Greaseball, the American train, and Electra, the bisexual locomotive. No, really. Electra sings, "AC/DC is OK with me/I can switch and change my frequency." There's also a slut-engine named Pearl, who doesn't seem so much interested in being a train as in pulling one. And remember, this is a children's show.

Starlight Express premiered in London during the frenzied years after Cats, when the theater world considered Andrew Lloyd Webber a genius for making a hit out of a pile of old cat poems. At least that one had T.S. Eliot to draw on for lyrics. Lloyd Webber's music for Starlight Express, all vaguely redolent of numbers in Cats or Evita, is sung with words by Richard Stilgoe and David Yazbek. Those two are responsible for "Ooh, woo, nobody can do it like a steam train/Ooh, woo, everybody's waiting for a dream train" (from the opening number, "Rolling Stock") and, from the unforgettable "Freight," "gravel's got a right to travel." That's a rock song. Get it?

At least in the London and New York versions way back yonder the skating trainfolk covered yards of track laid out up and around the inside of the theaters. Bad music aside, it was kind of cool how the performers whooshed at top speed around and around in the dark.

All that's gone. In this road-tour production, all skating is confined to a shallow onstage half-pipe they barely use. Mostly the actors line up like boxcars and bop their arms and heads up and down to cliché pop-music flapdoodle that all sounds like jingles composed to sell floor wax. They don't even skate the train races, which now take place on film in sequences that look like outtakes from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Imagine going to see Riverdance and, when all those dancers come leaping onstage, instead of clogging those mad Irish jigs, they just line up and do a little soft-shoe. That's what the skating's like in Starlight Express now. They come roaring out on wheels and then throw down their toe-stops. These are the little engines that don't. These trains never leave the station. Amtrak: The Musical.

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