Latino Chicago Theater Company

One of the guards wears a huge foam-rubber helmet cut in the shape of a pomade-shiny flat-top. The other two wear their uniform jackets over sheer black stockings, garters, and heels. The prisoner called “Ice” sports a sculptured-foam conk that sweeps out over his forehead like waves in a Hiroshige print, while fellow inmate Juan hears with satellite dish ears. El Raheem could be a member of the Fruit of Islam precision flying team in his goggled headdress, painted black nationalist red/black/yellow/green. Paco’s got a penis for a nose, and Omar’s nothing less than a complete foam dickhead.

This Short Eyes is not a model of kitchen-sink realism. No, not by a long shot. Latino Chicago’s hyperbolic production turns Miguel Pinero’s prison drama into a sort of sociological cartoon–a Tom ‘n’ Jerry agitprop morality play, where obscene stick figures enact the final passion of a child molester.

It’s an odd fit, this style with this play. Written in the early 70s–while Pinero himself was serving time in prison for armed robbery–Short Eyes is a clunky, self-conscious slice of life (larded with the occasional clunky, self-conscious slice of poetry) that draws its power not so much from its inherent worth as from certain elements of its being: Pinero’s obvious if unformed talent; his lumpen Latino voice; his nasty language; his criminal glamour; his racial, economic, and sexual preoccupations. When it first appeared, all this, plus events like the 1971 Attica prison riot, gave Short Eyes a political currency, a radical chicness, that more than compensated for its aesthetic faults.

And yet those faults existed. Still do–only more so now that the novelty’s faded. Pinero’s script is as schematic as any Hollywood platoon movie, with its rainbow coalition of convicts–from white trash Charlie Murphy to black nationalist El Raheem to Latin queen Julio “Cupcakes” Mercado. As soon as a soft, owly, middle-class pedophile named Clark Davis stumbles into the prison day room, we know basically where he’s headed and what a sorry business it’s going to be when he gets there.

The folks at Latino Chicago have chosen to confront this predictability head on. To make it, in fact, the basis of their interpretation. Where others might try to ignore or disguise Pinero’s stereotypes, Latino Chicago emphasizes them: using those big foam headpieces–and the elaborately stylized stage choreography that goes with them–to push beyond mere cliche, into the realm of caricature and cartoon.

By portraying Ice, Omar, Cupcakes, and the others as Bizarro World Mickey Mice, the Latino Chicago production shows how prison life and culture turn people into narrow, parodic images. Living graffiti tags, as dissociated from their real selves–their real humanity–as they are from their real names.

It’s an intriguing, thoroughly original way to approach one of the play’s crucial themes, as well as one of its crucial weaknesses. But the “design/production collective” that directed this Short Eyes hasn’t yet made good on its own ingenuity. The show I saw on opening night was full of symbolic and dramatic incoherencies.

Why are two prison guards depicted as sexy women from the waist down? What does it mean that Juan, the one prisoner who actively insists on his humanity, gets saddled with outsized ears and a cakewalk strut? How come Omar wears the dickhead helmet when it’s Ice who speaks a long monologue about masturbating to a photo of Jane Fonda? Where do the exaggerated movement styles established by each prisoner in act one disappear to in act two? I can think of answers to some of these questions if I try–but they’re stopgap, shallow answers that say less about Pinero’s intentions than about a crucial lack of rigor in the directing: A failure to translate the concept into a consistent vision. A failure to deal with subtleties and implications. A short-sightedness, as it were. Latino Chicago has compromised a bold design with sloppy thinking.

The sloppiest aspect of which is this production’s inability to communicate a strong sense of the humanity hiding out under those Hiroshige conks and Afro-aviator goggles. Latino Chicago’s cartoon approach can only work if we understand that the cartoon images aren’t the men themselves, but psychic decoys they send out to throw everybody off the track. The fact that they ultimately lose track, too, is part of the tragedy; but we can’t know the true extent of that tragedy unless the ensemble finds a way to share with us the tension between image and reality, cartoon and core.

As big-eared Juan, John Carlos Seda has a better-than-average opportunity to express that tension–and he uses it. Seda invests his character with a fierceness that suggests dignity and duress, along with plain pigheadedness. Other performances are at least interesting and energetic, if not completely successful. Noah Navar’s haunted child molester, Sam Sanders’s doughty Ice, and Darryl D. Davis’s half-comic/half-spectral El Raheem are especially intriguing.

But they’re finally done in by all that’s unfinished about Latino Chicago’s potentially marvelous conceit. Without the necessary clarity and tension, this Short Eyes fails to make its serious points, and so remains a caricature of what it could be.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rock Fraire.