Stage Left Theatre

Near the beginning of Stage Left’s production of Bocon! a young Salvadoran boy, Miguel, says that when he lived in his village he noticed that a lot of people were disappearing. Bocon (“big mouth” in Spanish) is the nickname affectionately given to Miguel, who wonders out loud about all the disappearing people. “Does the earth just open up and suck them in?” he asks. Or do demons trap them in caves, or ships come down from the sky to take them away?

Miguel discovers the truth the hard way when both his parents “disappear” one day for having big mouths of their own. In Miguel’s world, disappearing people are as real as ghosts that fly through the night, trickster demons, and helicopters that fly down and interrupt village life.

Bocon! is a children’s play that opened at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles several years ago, but you almost wonder if it’s wasted on kids–playwright Lisa Loomer offers so much for the adult mind to ponder. It would certainly be a shame to think that you can only see the show if you drag a kid along. Of course Bocon! offers many of the elements of a kids’ show: adventure, magic, music, actors speaking directly to the audience, and so on. But the depth of Loomer’s writing makes it more of an adult show suitable for the whole family. It’s too well grounded in the political reality of the Salvadoran civil war and too rich in imagery and allegory to ever be one of those annoyingly cute children’s shows.

Bocon! mixes fact and fantasy using the alchemy of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. After Miguel’s parents disappear, his neighbors tell him to go to Los Angeles, the City of Angels, to let the people there know that all the angels have left El Salvador. But young Miguel is so shocked by his parents’ disappearance that he literally loses his voice. He then sets off on an odyssey to get it back, a spiritual quest that leads to self-empowerment and truth.

On his journey Miguel encounters a host of dangerous magical spirits. The Duende tricks him out of all his money, but he is far less frightful than La Llorona, the bogeywoman of Central America who, according to legend, roams the night and steals children who aren’t home sleeping. La Llorona first appears to Miguel as a ten-foot-tall ghost that moans and wails–actually a huge puppet (designed by Drew Martin and Marguerite Hammersley) that can scare even the most jaded audience member. But La Llorona reveals that she is really a good egg, with a tender heart and a sense of humor. She tells Miguel that she roams the night trying to scare children into their homes so they’ll be safe from the soldiers. She warns him: “Don’t let the soldiers find your voice before you do.”

Following the advice of La Llorona, Miguel searches out the Voice Keeper, a spirit who captures voices and locks them in a box to “keep things nice and quiet for the General.” His journey is full of surprises and lighthearted humor, but it’s not without its disappointments. Like so much Latin American art, Bocon! is a richly woven tapestry of fact and fantasy, the natural and the supernatural coexisting on the same plane and in turn expressing a higher political and moral view.

Under the direction of Sandra Verthein, Stage Left’s talented multiracial cast beautifully captures the thrill and mystery of Loomer’s script. Crystal Barnes is a gas as La Llorona, and Sam Munoz, the adult actor who plays Miguel, offers a convincing and heartfelt portrayal of a young boy about to become a man. With music directed by Maria del Pilar Velasco and colorful costumes by Joel Klaff, Bocon! is a beguiling play that preaches an important message without ever becoming heavy-handed.