Be Like Magno!

Photo by Lita PuyatI knew this guy once who loved relating this story: he's bent over in agony one early morning, hurling the contents of far-too-many beers and Lord knows what else into a gutter in downtown Fullerton. Long after the contents of his stomach are expelled, he dry heaves for several minutes. As humiliating and revolting as the experience is, he can't help tripping on the fact that what he's trying to puke up isn't the poison in his stomach—it's the poison in his heart.

Love—or the kind of love that ultimately reveals itself as a lie—tends to provoke such liberating, if painful, illuminations. And the more you feel it, the more you want it, the more passionately you pursue it, the more devastating the hangover when the sad, sickening truth settles in: you've been played, betrayed, enslaved or a little of each. In the worst-case scenario, you kill yourself. Or throw yourself a perpetual pity party. Or obsess endlessly over how stupid you were to fall for a sick, lying bitch. Or bastard.

Or maybe you forgive everybody involved, chalk it up to life, crack a smile and get on with the business of living.

Enter Magno Rubio, the protagonist of The Romance of Magno Rubio, an Obie Award-winning play by Lonnie Carter receiving its West Coast premiere at the Laguna Playhouse. Based on a short story by writer/labor activist Carlos Bulosan, the play follows the desperate search for love of Magno, an illiterate, downtrodden Filipino laborer adrift in the United States during the Great Depression. Like any immigrant, like any common laborer, Magno dreams endlessly of a better life. And like many men and women, the road toward that better life leads to another person.

Magno's problem is he's short; unattractive; can't speak, read or write more than a few words of English; and probably smells pretty bad as well. So he resorts to paying a fellow co-worker to reply to a personal ad located in the back of a lonely-hearts magazine. His fellow workers ride him endlessly, relishing the opportunity to heap scorn on his foolish quest. But then Clarabelle, an Arkansas debutante, responds. Over the next few years, as Magno and his cohorts pick through the cabbage and tomato fields of central California, a courtship ensues. They exchange letters. She sends him a picture and a lock of her hair. He sends money.

And though his fellow workers struggle against the burdensome implausibility of Magno's love, his dream slowly becomes theirs, filling their hopeless nights with hope.

This is a virtual re-mounting of the original staging performed in New York last year. It's directed and staged by Loy Arcenas and stars all but one of the five cast members in that show. Technically and visually, the show looks great, but an uneasy balance exists between the truth of Magno's story and the heavily theatrical staging, which relies on stylized movement and other stagy effects. That makes it hard to care as much about Magno's story as we should.

Hard but not impossible. By the play's end, when Magno finally meets the woman he has loved for so long, you can't help but root for the guy. And when the sad truth comes—which everyone sees coming from a few worlds away—you can't help but feel his pain.

But—and here's the play's point—Magno himself seems okay with how things work out. Sure, the woman he fell for is revealed as a treacherous, self-centered betrayer who lies, withholds information and manipulates him into getting what she wants. But Magno doesn't seem crushed to discover that he loved an illusion: his love was real.

That's the brightest gem buried in Carter's version of Bulosan's story, made manifest in director Arcenas' final image. Wounded by Magno's romantic misfortune, the workers shuffle off toward hopelessness. And then Magno pops up, wearing a big smile. Though Clarabelle has betrayed Magno, he hasn't betrayed himself or the intense love he felt for someone he never saw. And then ask yourself: Do we ever see the love object? Or are we always gazing at a constantly shifting collage of brilliant disguises, projections and self-deceptions? Why not be like Magno Rubio and trust that what you felt was truly real, that, for a few shining moments, you were truly alive. And then go drink yourself unconscious.

The Romance of Magno Rubio at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 N 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 N 7 p.m. Through Dec. 7. $35-$52; student discounts available.

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