Ball culture — the subject of the 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning and the backdrop for Filipino-American playwright Boni B. Alvarez’s new play, Fixed — developed out of Harlem in the 1960s. It’s an LGBT subculture built around a network of “houses” whose members, mostly young blacks and Latinos, compete with each other for trophies or prizes in dance, dress or appearance. Each house takes the name of its founder, who often functions as a surrogate parent for the gay and transsexual youth who live with them and find shelter, identity and an avenue for self-expression in the system.
Set in Los Angeles’ Filipinotown, Fixed revolves around the ill-starred romance between a passionate ladyboy working as a masseuse in a “house,” and the black sheep brother of a local politician. Directed by Rodney To, it’s an over-the-top melodrama stocked with colorful characters, and with sufficient humor and humanity to have potential appeal. But while several supporting actors display depth and/or comic timing, too many of the performances, including a couple of pivotal ones, fall short of standard.
Miracles (Chris Aguila), highly regarded by her peers for her beauty and style, is madly in love with Mariano (Wade Allain-Marcus), a sometime lover whose older brother, Hudson (Joseph Valdez), is running for county sheriff. Mariano hasn’t been to visit Miracles in six months, honoring the request of Hudson and Hudson’s tough campaign manager/wife Dana (Rene-Marie Brewster) to refrain from trysts with Miracles until the election is over. Meanwhile, Miracles’ pining grows more acute after her application for sex-change surgery — which she thinks will make her more acceptable as a spouse for Mariano — is denied by a concerned doctor.
Besides the objections of Mariano’s family (and the man’s own reluctance to commit to a relationship), the pair face daunting resistance from Miracles’ boss, Gigi (playwright Alvarez), the head of the house and a large imposing ladyboy who insists that her word — and will — remain law. When Gigi catches Mariano on the premises, she tasers him — and Miracles too, after Miracles moves to protect her man, who tellingly crouches behind her before making a quick dash for the exit.
Meanwhile, back at campaign headquarters, Hudson, Dana and another campaign operative, A.J. (Adrian Gonzalez) are coping with the histrionics of another of Mariano’s conquests, Lizette (Anna Lamadrid). Fiery and obsessed, Lizette is a live wire and a genuine pain, but she has the advantage, in the eyes of the strategizing Dana, of being a biological woman.
All this hyper-drama is digestible to a point (let’s leave aside a faux tragic ending, embarrassing to watch). For instance, Allain-Marcus is persuasive as the ambivalent lover, erotically attached to Miracles but far from ready for the home-with-a-picket-fence future that she envisions. Lamadrid — an actress who specializes in excitable characters with feverish tongues — delivers the standout performance as a madwoman scorned. And Tonatiuh Elizarrarez is very good as Carmie, a young ladyboy supposedly outshone by the more dazzling Miracles. Carmie mostly observes events, but the actor commits to his role with skill and focus.
As with so many productions, however, the quality of the lead performance is key, and Aguila is not convincing — as either the luminary that Miracles, in her world, is supposed to be, or as an inamorata willing to make a supreme and shocking sacrifice for love. Alvarez likewise eschews any nuance as Gigi, but instead storms about with threatening bluster, even when she’s giving Miracles sage advice. One strains to believe that Brewster and Valdez are an ambitious political couple (Valdez is better when he interacts with Allain-Marcus as his brother), and the production’s spare set (Amanda Knehans) provides them with little atmospheric backup.
Part of the problem is the direction; To has an extensive resume as an actor, but Fixed is his first shot at directing a fully staged play. Going forward, the production would improve were he to rein in the bathos and stridency in some performances, and encourage shadings in others.
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; Mon., 8:30 p.m.; through October 22. (310) 307-3753 or wwwEchoTheaterCompany.com.