Latino and P.O.'d

Barefoot Boy With Shoes On, which opened last week at the Public Theatre of South Florida, is more a dance than a play. It's all emotion all the time, in a dance of anger and frustration about being a young Hispanic man with no options in urban America. It's as if playwright Edwin Sanchez let loose a fantasy of violence and despair just to see where it would go. And with that in mind, it works pretty well.

Rosario (David Perez-Ribada) is a young window washer in New York City who lives with his pops (Joel Kolker) and his grandpa, Buelo (Ramon Gonzalez-Cuevas). Rosario's older brother is in prison, and his pregnant girlfriend, Vicky (Valentina Izarra), no longer lives with them, ever since Rosario beat her. Both are in counseling with the ethically challenged Dr. Morton (Kevin Reilley), who wants Vicky to sell her child to his friends.

The set for this dance mingles the sad living room of Rosario's apartment (where Pops spends his days drinking beer and watching porno), Dr. Morton's office, and, most prominently, the high-rise apartment of wealthy gay political consultant Morris (Doug Williford). Morris' apartment sits above all the rest, with its large window through which Rosario peers into the chic, white world he envies for himself and his unborn son. Get it? The window is the blunt metaphor to describe Rosario's outsider status in this unattainable world.

The only moving on up for Rosario, though, is via his window-washing platform, from which he watches Morris and vice versa. It's through that window that Rosario eventually passes, to be coached by Morris on the vagaries of how to take what you want in life.

Morris: "That's what's missing in your life — beauty."

Rosario: "How do you know what's missing in my life?"

Morris: "That's why you're so angry. There are two things a true survivor can smell — anger and fear. I am a survivor. And so are you."

In some ways, Rosario's frustration may also reflect that of the playwright about the theater world. "Many regional theaters have never done a play by a Latino playwright, even as their communities increase in Hispanic numbers," Sanchez said in a late 2004 panel discussion in New York City on Hispanic theater. "How is that possible? Easy. We have not arrived in the consciousness of the people making the decisions of what plays to do."

This clearly isn't the case in Broward County. The Public Theatre's production of Sanchez's Barefoot Boy With Shoes On — although the first U.S. production of the play outside of its 1999 New York premiere — is the second of Sanchez's plays produced locally within the past six months. Last July, Fort Lauderdale's Sol Theatre did up Trafficking in Broken Hearts, a particularly pessimistic drama about gay hustlers in Times Square.

When Trafficking opened, I wrote that, when it comes to plays or movies about hustlers, the foregone conclusion is that things are going to end very, very badly for at least one of them, if not all. Is the same true for the folks in Barefoot? Well, things don't end very, very badly for them — just badly. Sanchez's play is darkly optimistic, often feeling like a sharp dream sequence in which Rosario fantasizes about what he'd really like to do to the people around him. Presumably, though, it isn't a dream sequence, and the resulting dance increasingly reveals a sociopathic destiny for Rosario that divorces him from his family and his Hispanic background.

Director Stuart Meltzer's choreography for Perez-Ribalda as Rosario works wildly to keep you wondering when Rosario's violence will erupt again. Perez-Ribalda's stamina gives Rosario a true volatility as he moves quickly from scene to scene, oscillating between tenderness and anger. The actors surrounding him, especially during chorus scenes when they all talk at him at once, fill out the moodiness of this nasty world. Izarra in particular infuses her Vicky with the nuances of a vulnerable but tough mother. And Williford as Rosario's creepy mentor is an apparition of selfishness, caring only about money and power. This is the kind of person Rosario yearns to become? Yikes.

Barefoot Boy With Shoes On offers similar kinds of insight into race and class previously played out by playwright John Guare in Six Degrees of Separation. Ultimately, what's most disturbing about Barefoot's dance is not so much its violence but its revelation of the cultural self-hatred that forces Rosario to desire dissolution of his Hispanic heritage. Even as he abandons his culture, it's clear he's still far, far away from resolving his anger and frustration.

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Dave Amber