MCT’s ‘Mala’ Is Good Family Drama

Rána Roman shines in one-person show, but staging is uneven.

By - Feb 1st, 2022 05:13 pm
Rána Roman in ‘Mala’. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Rána Roman in ‘Mala’. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

One-person monologues or two-person dramas are worthy forms of theater, stretching both actors and audiences, but that’s not the only reason Milwaukee theaters have produced a spate of them of late. Smaller casts are more reliable given the COVID-19 protocols of so many area professional groups. (As an aside I have seldom felt safer at live theater events given the strict mask rules and proof of vaccination imposed there, but not so carefully kept at other indoor locales.)

Two one-person dramas previously delayed have now opened on the same weekend at different established companies. Recently reviewed was the Milwaukee Rep’s Antonio’s Song and now on the boards in an abbreviated run until Feb. 13 is the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Mala at the studio theater space in the Broadway Theatre Center, also home to the Skylight.

The title is an ironic use of the Spanish term for a “bad” person, which a stubborn aging and failing mother invokes in anger at the daughter she expects to care for her. The mother, once a strong family figure who is now in her nineties, refuses to go to the hospital or admit anything is wrong.

Both works explore recognizable family conflicts and both actually use a central shock image of a well-meaning parent hitting a child. Yet stylistically each takes a distinctly different path to audience empathy. They are important reminders of how versatile theater can be even when using similar environments to hook us into participation.

Antonio’s Song seeks to elevate into high art the dancer/actor central to its story about growing up, while Mala relies on a conversational tone, and an intimate sometimes roundabout chat with the audience. Both approaches work. But Mala directly aims at a growing familiar dilemma — handling an aging parent. The everyday tone sometimes illuminates anguished details as well as common domestic spats.

It is an empathetic journey inside the head of the daughter, accompanied by sudden switches into abrasive Spanish (with screen translation) when her mentally fading mother roars up out of the same body. Solo actress Rána Roman, who has been a musical theater hit as a homegrown Milwaukeean, here gets another chance to reveal her dramatic range and her particular ability to warmly work with the audience.

The vocal murmurs of recognition scattered among the patrons are more like the open dialogue we shoot back at the TV set at home, rather than the behavior expected at live theater. But perhaps it is a sign of how the play is attracting people not used to theater rules – or how recognizable the situation and the mental thoughts are to those watching.

Melinda Lopez, an honored new playwright, has a dialogue honesty in creating this piece, though she sometimes stretches her gifts too far. Setting the dilemma inside a Puerto Rican family actually expands the commonality of the situation. We are entering a curiously familiar space that many families have not looked into with the same artistic insight as Lopez. The conflict within the daughter is a common one for many children – mothers now expected to mother their own mother who once mothered them. No wonder so many families seek outsiders to take over. The production also deals with that instinct to escape.

Perhaps in the interest of seeming poetic, Lopez has divided the actress’ job into too many chapters, with projected titles. Nor has Roman been encouraged by director Brent Hazelton to use more of her gifts for humor and sarcasm, which would offer needed shifts in attacks and keep the revelations from any sense of repetition.

The monologue actually has more facets to explore than the staging accomplished on opening night, particularly in how to let the tears and emotional recognition pop out of the audience with less sense of manipulation. But at least Roman gets to remind us of how often Milwaukee audiences have taken her skills for granted.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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