Now extended thru January 28!
Tender and charming Midwest premiere
|UrbanTheater Company i/a/w Mike Oquendo presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Located in the heart of Humboldt Park, UrbanTheater Company is a local treasure. The space is intimate, the staff friendly and enthusiastic, the audience diverse and open-minded. UrbanTheater Company has been running for 11 years, but this is my first visit and I hope it won’t be my last. The company is currently celebrating the three-week extension of La Gringa. Carmen Rivera’s English- and Spanish-language play about Puerto Rican and American culture as seen in one family has been running for two decades off-Broadway. Thanks to UrbanTheater Company’s dynamic production, its Midwest premiere run enjoyed sold-out crowds, and now an extension. This La Gringa is worth the trip west, with an energetic cast and a lovely message about home and family.
María (Sofia Tew) is in her early twenties, a recent college graduate who’s anxious to reconnect with her roots. Though both of her parents are Puerto Rican, she was born and raised in New York City and has never visited their country of origin. This Christmas, all of that changes. María is excited to spend the holiday with her mother’s estranged relatives and put her elementary Spanish and Puerto Rican Studies major to work. Her aunt Norma (Nydia Castillo) is less than happy with her presence, but her uncles Monolo (Frankie Davila) and Victor (Phil Camacho) are welcoming. María also finds a new friend and potential love interest in Monchi (Anthony De Jesus), a struggling farmer who aims to “take back the land” with his civic-minded friends. But is María really Puerto Rican, or just a “gringa” as her cousin Iris (NK Gutiérrez) states? How can she know for sure?
Rivera’s script is both a classic “fish out of water” tale and a glimpse into the relations of a particular, quirky family. María’s passion for Puerto Rico and her eagerness to reconnect are completely genuine, but it’s easy to see why she might not be welcome among those who have actually put in the time in their home country. La Gringa is akin to a sitcom, but more “Black-ish” or “Roseanne” than “Full House” – a show that’s funny but substantial, with respect for its characters and their struggles. While María wants everything to be perfect with her relatives and her new “home, she’s also naïve and hasn’t quite thought things through (like many early twentysomethings). La Gringa is mostly lighthearted but retains a gravitas as well – every character has complex feelings about their heritage, and Rivera lets that shine through.
La Gringa boasts several excellent performances: Davila has many wonderful moments as a family member who’s been “dying” for several years, but experiences revitalization upon bonding with María. Camacho is a steady and sympathetic uncle/father figure, and Tew’s sweetness and charisma are those of a star in the making. But the real standout is Gutiérrez as cousin Iris, colorful in dress and language, who’s trying to find a job in her homeland to no avail, and who knows very well that life in Puerto Rico isn’t all sunshine and roses. Gutiérrez’s Iris is funny and smart, maintaining a steady presence as her character grows and changes over the course of the show.
A solid production from beginning to end, La Gringa is heartwarming but not sappy, presented in a welcoming venue by a talented ensemble.
La Gringa continues through
December 11th January 28th at UrbanTheater Company, 2620 W. Division (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20 through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at UrbanTheaterChicago.org. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
NOTE: On Thursdays, theatergoers can enjoy a Cuban dinner at La Havana Cafe (2525 W. Division), plus a ticket to La Gringa, for $30. On Sundays all-you-can-eat Puerto Rican brunch at Nellie’s (2458 W. Division) plus a ticket to La Gringa is also $30.
Photos by Anthony Aicardi
behind the scenes
Miranda Gonzalez (director), Liza Ann Acosta (dramaturg), Antonio Bruno (production manager, sound design), Sara Carranza (stage manager, props design), Karolyn M. Gil (box office associate, house manager), Caswell James (set design, technical director), Andrew Lehmkuhl (lighting design), Mike Oquendo (co-producer), Shawn Quinlan (costume design), Raquel Torre (movement coach), Ivan Vega (producer), Anthony Aicardi (photographer)