When playwright Oliver Mayer debuted his groundbreaking “Blade to the Heat” over two decades ago, people saw it as an “AIDS play.”
The saga of a closeted Latino fighter struggling with the secret of his sexuality within the hyper-masculine world of professional boxing, it was set in the late 1950s – long before the first documented cases of HIV began to appear. Even so, its story about navigating a secret stigma within a homophobic environment resonated with audiences of the ‘90s in such a way that drawing parallels to the era of AIDS was inescapable.
Now, Mayer has returned to the world of “Blade” in a sequel, “Members Only,” which picks up the threads of the original play in 1982 – placing its characters in a historical moment when the epidemic – with all its life-and-culture-changing implications – was poised to descend upon the world.
Doing so has allowed him to explore directly the topic which was only obliquely touched in his original piece, of course; but it would be a mistake to think “Members Only” is an “AIDS play” – at least, entirely – any more than its predecessor. Mayer may now be able to address the subject within his narrative, but he weaves it among the threads that continue through the lives of the old characters and into to the lives of the new; more than that, he uses all of those threads to connect, once more, the issues of a bygone era to those that face us now.
“Members” once again centers on boxer Pedro “Pete” Quinn; still fighting and still closeted, he has gone on to a championship career. When a young female boxer who trains at his gym is confronted by harassment and misogyny, he takes her under his wing; but even as he assumes the role of her protector, he finds himself facing new threats of his own – from two former “frenemies” planning to make a film about a tragic incident in his past, and from a mysterious new sickness emerging within the world where he lives his secret life.
“Members Only,” while it relies heavily on plot points which originated in “Blade,” is a stand-alone piece – to a point. It’s not necessary to have seen the original, or even to be familiar with its storyline, to be able to follow the action. Even so, the surviving characters carry a lot of pre-existing emotional weight, and audiences who have not experienced their previous history firsthand may have difficulty getting sufficiently invested in them before things start getting heavy.
Those who were there for the first part of the journey, however, will likely be absorbed from the moment the lights come up to reveal protagonist Pedro Quinn – played here, fortuitously and remarkably, by Ray Oriel, reprising the role he took on in the history-making 1996 Mark Taper production of “Blade” – re-enacting the climactic moments of the original play to set the ground for what is to come over the next 90 minutes.
In either case, this world premiere production mounted by the Latino Theater Company at LATC transcends standard narrative conventions by presenting the story and its characters through a ritualized approach which elevates them to the realm of myth. Emotional connections are forged at a deeper, primal level, and the specifics of conflict serve to illuminate repeating patterns that resonate within the larger context of shared cultural experience. Audience members are reminded throughout that they are not just seeing a play; they are also participating in a tribal ceremony.
This is accomplished by director José Luis Valenzuela through his imaginative staging, which takes place on what is essentially a bare stage – over which hangs a complex of jumbo screens, evocative of those over a boxing ring, upon which real-time video of the action is periodically broadcast – and incorporates choreographed, ceremonial scene transitions that are part of the action instead of interruptions to it.
It’s also reflected in the performances of the excellent cast, who heighten their style just enough to transform their characters into archetypes while keeping them grounded in the “real” world of the play. Oriel uses the weight of his history in the role to give a powerful presence to Quinn, as he takes this modern-day Latino Oedipus on a redemptive journey from self-loathing regret to heroic atonement. Jon Huertas, of “This Is Us,” is charismatic as Vinal, Quinn’s former rival on his own quest for resolution; and Gabriela Ortega is lovably scrappy as Lone, Quinn’s female protégé. Perhaps most unforgettable is Marlene Forte, as Sarita, who embodies the transformation from vengeful Fury to merciful Mother with remarkable dexterity. Also deserving special mention is Darrin Dewitt Henson, who brings grace and understanding to his turn as Quinn’s gay doctor, who becomes the face of AIDS even as he warns of its coming.
The real star, though, is Mayer, who, in revisiting the themes from “Blade,” succeeds in both reasserting them and bringing them into an updated relevance. The struggle to reconcile opposing cultural identities is, if anything, timelier today than it was in the period settings of either play; Quinn’s dilemma of being gay within a homophobic community still feels uncomfortably relevant in 2018, and Lone’s quest for acceptance as an equal in the male-dominated world of boxing has inescapable resonance in the era of #TimesUp and #MeToo. There’s also deft exploration of intolerant traditional values within the Latino community – and all communities of color, for that matter – as well as the pernicious projection of self-hatred which manifests in bigotry and violence.
Lastly, he underscores everything with the insight that triumph is temporary. Even as Quinn approaches victory in the conflicts that have shaped his life, new battles loom in the shadows of the future; he can prove his strength against another man but he is powerless against the ravages of time and age, and wider acceptance of his sexuality comes even as a gay plague is on the horizon. The fight is never over, whether for one or for all, and – as the play’s ending makes powerfully clear – there’s always a punch that you don’t see coming.
“Members Only” runs at Los Angeles Theatre Center Oct. 25-Nov.18. For tickets and more information, visit thelatc.org.