Branded for Life

11. September, 2012 Theater No comments

Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo is a project that’s been in the works for four years. A coproduction of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, the Central American Resource Center, and Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, Placas was conceived as a serious examination of Salvadoran-American gang violence in San Francisco amid nationwide anti-immigrant hysteria. Playwright Paul S. Flores interviewed gang members, parents and intervention workers while working on the piece. The resulting play now premiering at the erstwhile Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at 450 Post Street (which will become the new SF Playhouse this fall) feels very much like it’s designed to educate, with a nuanced view of the social pressures of gang culture but also a lack of dramatic subtlety and tendency toward melodrama.

Ricky Saenz, Ric Salinas and Cristina Frias in Placas. Photo by Amanda Lopez.

The title, Placas, apparently can mean a few things, such as graffiti tags, but here it particularly means tattoos, especially the ones worn to demonstrate gang loyalty. Placas is also the nickname of the main character, Fausto Carbajal, an ex-con and former gangbanger who now just wants to stay out of trouble. He’s even getting his placas removed, a long and painful process, for the sake of his son. His teenage son Edgar and his mother now live in the territory of a rival gang, and he can’t even visit them without confrontation from the young guns that prowl the streets. Fausto just wants to keep his son out of trouble, but he’s way too late. Edgar, called Shorty, has already fallen in with the local gang and is on house arrest for saying he found a gun that a friend gave him. It’s also far too late for Fausto to forge a connection with Shorty, because after years away in prison or deportation, his son doesn’t even know him and resents him intensely.

“There’s no such thing as a former gangbanger,” Fausto says. “Whoever said that has never been in a gang.” A similar sentiment is expressed by his ex, Claudia, who’s out of that life and just taking care of her kid now, but still has her tats and her nickname, Sparky, and says she’ll always be that person she was when she was running wild. Even if Placas gets rid of his placas, he’ll never be free of his gang affiliation—the 13s all over his body and the 14s tattooed on the North Side gang are both just the outward symbols of the divide and ultimately all it seems to come down to. As far as anyone can tell, there’s no real unifying identity to the gangs other than where they happen to live, the North Side or South Side in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Culture Clash cofounder Ricardo Salinas gives an earnest, sensitive performance as Fausto, who seems exhausted from the start, too tired to indulge in petty conflicts anymore. He takes having to pay an exorbitant toll to young thugs to enter his son’s neighborhood with the same equanimity that he puts up with being hassled by a cop who has it in for him. Makeup designer Jacqueline Scott does great work with the tattoos that cover Fausto’s body and punctuate everyone else’s.

Ricky Saenz is twitchy and standoffish as Edgar, bursting with nervous energy, with a somewhat distracting tic of always rocking from one foot to the other. He wears his baggy pants low (costume design by Keiko Carreiro) and is always clutching the crotch of his jeans to keep them from falling down. And he’s always seething with hostility for his dad, always flying off the handle and avoiding even making eye contact with him. Cristina Frias is vague and limply chiding as mom Claudia, not showing much spark for someone named Sparky, but she gets a chance to throw down a little as the shit starts to hit the fan.

Luis “Xago” Juárez does double duty as leaders of rival gangs, impressively transforming himself in face and bearing, even if neither character is really fully formed. He’s swaggering and menacingly playful as Scooby, Shorty’s shifty “O.G.” on the North Side, and he’s long-faced and stolid as Largo, Fausto’s dour old comrade from the South Side gang. Sarita Ocón is amusingly bland and soft-spoken as the counselor in charge of tattoo removal, and hair-trigger psycho as her gangbanger sister, Bugsy. She’s especially formidable as Fausto’s mother, who takes no shit, despite the absurdity of appearing to be younger than her own children. Juan C. Parada is stiff and unbelievable as Fausto’s nebbishy, ultra-pious brother, but he makes a good sinister cop, even if his “wait till you slip” dialogue is pretty standard-issue. Eduardo DeColosio fills out the cast as nameless thugs and tattoo-removal technicians.

Director Michael John Garcés, who developed the piece with Flores, gives the play an energetic staging that makes a point of underlining the dramatic moments. Alejandro Acosta’s sound design adds layers of ominous music and disturbing sounds for the tattoo treatments. Tanya Orellana’s set is made up of simple rectangles with gray walls smudged to suggest concrete—a mere suggestion of buildings.

The dialogue shifts back and forth between untranslated Spanish and English, especially among the older characters, but for the most part a non-Spanish speaker can get the gist, even if some of the humorous lines are lost. Unfortunately there are a few key moments where you really have to be bilingual to understand what’s going on, including the dramatic conclusion.

The end feels awfully convenient in addition to being confusing, and the plot starts to feel like something out of a movie-of-the-week after a while, but Flores has a good ear for slang, and there are a few powerful moments even if you can’t quite believe in the characters.

The two-hour play is bracketed with monologues, giving insights into gang culture through characters explaining the significance of their tattoos. Far from feeling tacked on like the direct-address passages in many new plays, these speeches are the most effective part of the play, more eloquent and emotionally authentic than the scenes with dialogue. As a play that’s so concerned with message, it feels most real when it step out of the story for a minute to just straight-out preach it.

Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo
San Francisco International Arts Festival
Through September 16
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
450 Post St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #82 of 2012, attended September 6.

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