In Magno, a little rube with a big heart
By Don Shirley
LA Times Staff Writer

In the annals of romance, Magno Rubio's match with Clarabelle is certainly one of the least auspicious.

He's a Filipino migrant farm worker in '30s California, only 4 feet 6 inches tall. She's a strawberry blond Arkansas woman whose photo in a lonely hearts magazine has caught his attention. Long before they actually meet, the mismatch is clear &Mac247; to everyone except Magno. In her letters, Clarabelle keeps dunning Magno for handouts for her supposedly needy relatives. And Magno learns that Claro, the fellow farm worker who was initially writing Magno's letters for him, has initiated his own correspondence with Clarabelle.

The ending is predictable &Mac247; but you can't say that about the live-wire play that tells Magno's story, The Romance of Magno Rubio. It's a rejuvenating jolt for audiences at Laguna Playhouse. In its fervent theatricality as well as its subject, Magno Rubio is a big leap from the realistic middle-class comedies that often appear at Laguna.

The play is virtually a musical. True, the cast breaks into composer Fabian Obispo's melodies only occasionally, and no choreographer is credited. Still, Lonnie Carter's text throbs with rhyme and rhythm, and Loy Arcenas' staging adds literally striking effects &Mac247; the actors often wield farm implements as percussion instruments.

Jojo Gonzalez, in the title role, has a frenzied solo in which he illustrates how hard he's working to raise money for Clarabelle. It's impressive.

Clarabelle's letters are enacted by Ramón de Acampo, one of the men in the cast who otherwise plays a comrade of Magno's. He takes a spotlighted position at the side and transforms his voice into that of a seductively Southern and very femme con artist.

When Clarabelle finally arrives in California, her body is depicted in silhouette by Orville Mendoza, the biggest of the men on stage, standing behind billowing fabric. The effect makes her image larger than life.

Mendoza is the only actor in the five-man cast who wasn't in the original production by Ma-Yi Theatre Company in New York last year. That staging also was by Arcenas, so most of this group has been together long enough that the ensemble work looks seamless.

That Magno's name is reminiscent of "big rube" is no accident, but the appealing Gonzalez makes us believe that the character's attitude is a blessing more than a liability. Carter, who adapted a short story by the Filipino American migrant worker-turned-writer Carlos Bulosan, maintains an upbeat sense of human resilience despite the characters' dire conditions.

Art Acuña's kindly narrator and sometime translator and Ron Domingo's friendly cook, who longs for the woman he left back home, contribute to the general sense of hope.

Arcenas' set, on the other hand, emphasizes the grimmer realities, providing wire bars &Mac247; easy to see around but nonetheless suggestive of confinement &Mac247; at the front of a brown and plain stage. But the stage is often lit with gorgeous golden hues by James Vermeulen.

Tagalog is strewn throughout the text &Mac247; sometimes translated, occasionally not. But the gist of Magno Rubio is clear, and Magno's bighearted spirit is energizing.

Laborer buries reality with love
An innovative new play in Laguna tells an offbeat love story with wit and charm.
The Orange County Register

The Romance of Magno Rubio is a play about a man who's in love with love. How else do you explain the strange, indefatigable yearning that propels its four-and-a-half-foot Filipino hero as he fruitlessly courts a heartless American gold digger named Clarabelle who's twice his size? There are times during playwright Lonnie Carter's offbeat gem of a comedy, making its West Coast debut this month at the Laguna Playhouse, that you want to pat Magno gently on the shoulder and say "Enough, already!" But as Magno's crazy quest spins itself out, you begin to realize what his four co-workers already know: His love-affair-by-letter is his way of escaping from the grueling, lonely life of a California farm laborer. As escapism goes, it sure beats playing poker or the harmonica. The Ma-Yi Theatre Company, which specializes in new work that explores the Asian-American experience, has brought its Obie-winning New York production more or less intact to the playhouse. There have been minor cast changes, and director Loy Arcenas has designed a moody new set that's reportedly much like the original; you can practically smell the woodsmoke and sweat in this decrepit '30s bunkhouse.

It's easy to see what all the fuss was about. This staging, based on the short story by day laborer, social commentator, writer and Filipino folk hero Carlos Bulosan, crackles with the creative and performance energy of a work that's tonally and thematically of a piece. Carter and Arcenas place us convincingly inside another culture without making it feel exotic or forced.

Carter's script is an amazing feat for a non-Filipino. He freely mixes rhyming couplets (a Philippine literary tradition), song, dance and ritualized movement with more naturalistic theatrical elements, and the result, somehow, does not come off like a hodgepodge. At one point, Magno is coaxed into singing a love song in Tagalog. The lyrics, in translation, are pulled into view on a large upstage canvas by another actor. The moment seems charming, natural and perfectly in sync with Magno's corny-yet-sincere sentiments.

There are some subplots. Claro (Orville Mendoza) is the resident bully, and he resents Magno's happiness for reasons that only gradually become clear (the tension between them boils to a head in a slow-motion fight, the play's comic highlight). Nick (Art Acuña) is a frustrated scholar who helps Magno turn his longings into poetic letters to his beloved Clarabelle.

But Magno's irrational passion is the engine that drives the story. He seems unswayed by growing evidence that Clarabelle is a small-time con artist (although we never meet her, performer Ramón de Ocampo delivers Clarabelle's voice, a syrupy, Southern drawl that gets increasingly seductive as she demands more and more money from Magno).

Things end badly, of course, but the story thankfully doesn't turn tragic. The play's final image is a smiling Magno, hovering godlike above the action, cheerful as a puppy and ready, it would seem, for another adventure.

It's hard to choose standouts in this talented ensemble that works seamlessly together.

Ocampo's Clarabelle is memorable. So is Mendoza's Claro, an angry man for whom happiness seems unattainable (watch for Mendoza's amusing late-play cameo as another character).

But it's JoJo Gonzalez who must carry the evening as Magno Rubio, and he doesn't miss a beat. Whether flashing a knife in white-hot anger, singing about the joys of his Amazonian love or boasting crudely of his sexual prowess, Gonzalez shows us a man whose self-confidence and optimism turn him into a spiritual giant. If we all had a little more Magno in us, life's slings and arrows wouldn't even break the skin.

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