Thursday, November 15 , 2018, 8:02 pm | Fair 58º


Review: Teen Ensemble Un-‘Masks’ Life’s Truths

City at Peace guides the enlightening — and entertaining — original production

Preparation for last weekend’s production of Masks at Center Stage Theater began in October, when local nonprofit City at Peace brought teens together at an annual retreat to share stories about their lives. Out of these stories, 18 of the young people, under the direction of Joseph Velasco, collaborated to create this musical stage production portraying their struggles with difficult issues in their lives, such as homelessness, drug use and teen pregnancy.

Another common thread that came up in their sharing was the idea of the “masks” everyone wears to conceal their true selves. In the play, this was expressed by each actor literally wearing a small mask, of his or her own creation, covering the upper part of the face. The exception was the central character of Mask-Bringer (Waldo Damaso-Figueroa), who wore an elaborate half-sun, half-moon mask that covered his face. He designed the mask, which was then made by Laura Denny.

Damaso-Figueroa did a marvelous job in this pivotal role, anchoring the show with his presence, poise and self-assurance. An often serious narrator and commentator on the action, he also got a little comic relief in scenes at the doctor’s office, where he was the voice of the receptionist and once played a door, with patients passing through.

Another anchor of this show was the exceptional live music. The six-piece onstage band, also made up of teens, was ably directed by John Enrico Douglas, who also played keyboards. From Latin jazz to show tunes to soft ballads to the closing overture, the band brought a current of energy and a gleam of professionalism to the evening.

Original songs for the show were written by Douglas, Velasco and the cast, the standout of which was “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor.” Done as a big musical number at the end of the first half, it was co-written and sung by Austin Escamilla, along with the rest of the cast. As the lackadaisical doctor who is all-too-willing to write prescriptions for his son and all the other teenagers in town, Escamilla had the opportunity to showcase his apparent musical comedy talents. With the rest of the cast in protective suits with hula hoops and beach balls, this number was delightfully over-the-top and well-done.

Another standout was the scene where Joseph (Forrest Best-Hooser), distraught about his situation, takes a handful of pills and washes it down with booze. After standing unsteadily for a moment, he gently falls backward into the waiting arms of the Mask-Bringer, a beautifully ambivalent moment.

Also notable for its humanity was the following scene, where Joseph is unconscious in the hospital and his girlfriend Jas (Sam Darcus) is sitting by his bedside, talking to him sweetly and lovingly. When he opens his eyes and she sees that he is alive, she leaps to her feet and begins to scream at him, “What did you think you were doing?!” Darcus also performed a notable monologue in the first half, along with an original song, “My Nightingale.”

Miguel Munoz displayed exceptional comic timing. His recurring line, “I want to be … an actor,” got laughs each time.

During the last segment of the play, as story lines were being tied up, not always with a happy ending, the actors removed their masks. A shining moment was when Emily (Emma Bobro), nearing the end of her solo song, “My Simple Little Wish,” took off her mask, and the glow of her face was radiant. This was an elegant and beautiful illustration of the underlying concept of the entire show — aren’t we happier when we get rid of the masks?

All involved in Masks and City at Peace are to be commended for creating original theater where teens can be heard. Bravo!

— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.

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