Hispanically incorrect

If you're Anglo, you might approach a night of theater titled Latin American Evening with the smug assumption of someone who knows what's inside the tamale before you even unroll the corn husk. It's a mindset whites would never have when confronting a show called "Anglo-Saxon Evening," but then again, a white theater troupe would probably only use such a title ironically--to lull us into thinking we already know what Wonder bread tastes like before we unwrap the loaf.

Somewhere in the back of my Euro-American brain, I thought I had "Latin American Evening" all figured out before the house lights dimmed. This is partly the ingrained arrogance of an "educated" member of one culture viewing the works of another, and partly the fault of the ubiquitous concept known as multiculturalism, which has, at least as practiced ever since I was in public school, woefully underserved the cultures it purports to celebrate.

An African tribal dance or a folkloric routine scooped out of its native land and plopped onto a stage in front of a group of Americans--even, I daresay, black and Hispanic Americans--can be either pleasant or boring, but it will never connect with its foreign audience unless we understand how this particular piece of culture corresponds to something in our own. If you, like me, harbor the "If I Could Teach the World to Sing" mentality that people in all corners of the world are more alike than they are different, that human nature in all its glories and brutalities is pretty darned predictable no matter what language the human speaks, then all this talk about diversity, however well-intentioned, quickly becomes superficial. "Multiculturalism" reinforces difference; I want the thrill of the paradox, of discovering a little piece of myself in a stranger who looks and talks nothing like me.

Theater, the most primitive and visceral of all the art forms, must achieve this unexpected union of the minds, or we might as well go see Titanic again. Thankfully, with Latin American Evening Teatro Dallas has held up a mirror that reflects a poignant, hilarious, bleak, and passionate image of everybody, albeit decked out in some assertively Latin American duds. Teatro artistic director Cora Cardona is by no means obligated to extend a hand to non-Latinos--we're living in a city, after all, that is heading toward a Latino majority--but I'm grateful she began and ended this wonderful night of monologues and one-acts with the story of a stranger in a strange land. "The Gay Little Immigrant That Could" serves as a perfect bridge into some of the evening's more exotic fare.

In fact, it's one of two monologues written by Guillermo Reyes for the Los Angeles production Men on the Verge of a Hispanic Breakdown, so its take on cultural barriers is infused with an American perspective on ethnicity. Frank Mendez impressively juggles two stereotypes at once--the flamboyant homosexual and the immigrant who consistently murders his new language. He plays Federico, a newcomer to L.A. who has experienced the attentions of rich, white, traveling American men back in his mother country. Federico has come to our shores on the promise of that perennially disappointing matchmaker, the personal ad, but has decided that fulfilling his material desires in the land of dreams may not be such a bad consolation prize for romantic rejection.

Also from Men on the Verge is "Hispanically Correct," a more pointed look at the tangle of sexuality, class, and ethnicity in the U.S. film industry. A gay American actor (Victor Salinas), who has lied about his Hispanic heritage, finds himself in the peculiar position of being cast for a Hispanic role by a casting director who thinks the actor's real name is "Edward Thornhill." Salinas is far more reserved in his mincing and prancing than Mendez, although "Hispanically Correct" is less fun than "The Gay Little Immigrant That Could." Yet its themes resonate more sharply.

The most haunting pieces of the night follow. Jorge Diaz's "I Die, Therefore I Am" finds a starving man (Mendez, who makes a smashing transformation from flamboyant to befuddled and desperate) confronted with some very difficult choices about his body when his donated blood is rejected by a coldly efficient nurse (Susanna Guzman, whose fierce officiousness gives Nurse Ratchett a run for her money) and a ghoulish doctor (Mark Odell). The phrase "selling your body" is vividly transplanted (pun intended) from prostitution to profit-driven medicine, with a chilling connection between the two left intact.

Cora Cardona takes the directing reins for her own original translation of Anton Arrufat's The Repetition. She reinstates the one-act's original bufo influence, a Cuban hybrid of farce and Japanese kabuki that employs masks and an antic style of comedy. Christina Vela's young beauty/old matron masks lend an eeriness to the tale of a young single woman (Guzman) whose flirtation with a traveling salesman (Odell) is interrupted by the gossipy, pushy matriarch (a vividly effective David Lozano, in all his big-bosomed, fat-bottomed splendor) who lives nearby. Is the older woman resentful of her neighbor's youth and opportunity, or is she unconsciously trying to save her from domestic hell? You be the judge.

Latin American Evening is the strongest ensemble acting I've seen from Teatro Dallas since its gut-wrenching take on the Roman Catholic ransacking of sexuality, The Holy Inquiry. For a change, all the roles are matched by actors with the gifts to make the characters really breathe. Talented actors taking parts unsuited to them is by no means a problem exclusive to Teatro Dallas; every small theater troupe with an ensemble, from Kitchen Dog to the Undermain, has been affected by this phenomenon. It may, in fact, be the biggest deficiency of Dallas theater in general. You're reminded of this when you see a harmonious convergence of sensibilities like Latin American Evening. Conversely, you also realize that "mismatching" the language, culture, and style of artist and audience can prove to be an enormously satisfying collision of cultures--when performed this expertly.

Latin American Evening runs through March 14. Call 741-1135.