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Luis Alfaro’s post-pandemic play ‘The Travelers’ targets the souls of saints and sinners

If the social isolation of the pandemic has sometimes made you feel like a cloistered monk, well, Luis Alfaro knows your pain — and maybe your blessings, too.

Holed up in his Koreatown apartment, the native Angeleno playwright and USC professor said he endured “a little bit of what everyone was probably going through, a little bit of nostalgia and depression and anxiety.” .

But he also received what he calls “gifts” during this surreal rupture of the space-time continuum. He found community while shopping for his old Korean and Salvadoran neighbors. He had more leisure to contemplate and cultivate his inner life as an artist and as a person.

Luis Alfaro, playwright and MacArthur genius grant winner. His meditative drama, “The Travelers,” set in a Central Valley monastery, is playing at the Los Angeles Theater Center.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

“I was digging deeper into writing. I was looking for a different type of experience,” Alfaro said in an interview last week at the Los Angeles Theater Center downtown, where “The Travelers,” his spiritual quest drama about four monastic priests whose fragile brotherhood is shattered when a gunshot victim staggered into among them, which opened last Thursday.

“I noticed that almost all of my friends asked harder and more important questions when I was in the theater,” Alfaro continued. “Everyone was wondering what happened, why weren’t the subscribers coming back. And it was clear from my point of view, I would not return to the same rituals. I am a different person and I have changed.

The tension between clinging to old beliefs and outdated liturgies, or abandoning them in search of a deeper, more complex truth, drives “The Travelers.” The play first premiered at the Magic Theater in San Francisco, one of Alfaro’s many longtime theatrical domiciles, along with the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where he was a resident artist from 1995 to 2005. The Los Angeles production is presented by the Latino Theater Company in association with Magic Theater and Campo Santo.

Evelina Fernández and José Luis Valenzuela, the couple who run the Center and the Latino Theater Company, have known Alfaro since he was creating artistic performances decades ago, in the role of his aunt. In pink underwear. On roller skates.

When he saw the production of “The Travelers” in San Francisco, Valenzuela said, “It spoke to me in a totally different way than some of his other plays,” and he asked Alfaro if he could bring him to Los Angeles.

Evelina Fernandez and Jose Luis Valenzuela, founders and directors of the Latino Theater Company of Los Angeles.

Founding directors of the Latino Theater Company of Los Angeles, the wife-husband duo of Evelina Fernandez and José Luis Valenzuela.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s a philosophical play about humanity,” Valenzuela said, “and how we interact with each other as human beings, and what that means, and that relationship with religion – how religion speaks to us about humanity.”

Set in a Central Valley monastery inhabited by a quartet of Carthusians, “Les Voyageurs” hovers between the celestial and the muddy, as suggested by a group of chandeliers suspended above three mounds of reddish earth where candles, flowers and flowers grow. toilet and a claw. free-standing bathtub which symbolically serves as a baptismal font, in the scenography of Tanya Orellana.

Although their religious order has existed since the Middle Ages, the monastery is about to be abolished by the archdiocese. The group’s leader, Brother Santo (played by Sean San José, who also took over the show for LTC), tries to rally his flock in the face of food shortages and utility cuts.

It’s into this unholy mess that Juan (Juan Amador) finds himself, bearing the gushing scars of a violent incident in a Sacramento bar. Is this a test from God? As the monks first argue over how to respond, then decide to adopt this self-confessed sinner (“alcohol, cocaine, Fresno motels”) into their order, Juan’s presence triggers a collective crisis of faith among the brothers.

Juan Amador and Sean San Jose perform a scene from "The travellers."

Juan Amador (brother Juan) and Sean San Jose (brother Santo), right, perform a scene from the Latino Theater Company’s production of “The Travelers.” Set in a monastery in the Central Valley, the film will be set at LTC’s longtime home, the Los Angeles Theater Center, on September 21.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

In his review, Times theater critic Charles McNulty described the play as “a choral mediation on a period of overwhelming disruption” that “seeks not answers but advice on how to move gracefully from a disaster to another.” Its atmospheric staging and lyrical dialogues reinforce the philosophical and introverted atmosphere of “Les Voyageurs”.

“I’m more in love with the metaphors, more in love with the characters, less interested in the story,” Alfaro said. “A great character will tell you a great story. A great story doesn’t always make for a great character.

A former altar boy raised by a Mexican Catholic father and a Chicana Pentecostal mother, Alfaro said his latest work “is a reflection, probably more than religion, on the type of spiritual journey I’ve been on during the pandemic.” It is part of a series of articles he has written about the Central Valley, which he sees as an ideal replacement for the Golden State as a whole. One of Alfaro’s theater masters is Luis Valdez, author of “Zoot Suit,” several of whose works delve deep into the grueling realities of the Valley’s migrant workers, as well as his mythic subconscious. The playwright’s son, Kinan Valdez, plays one of the monks who, in a remarkable monologue about his birth in the orchards, poetically expounds the Mesoamerican hermaneutics of Highway 99.

“The Central Valley represents kind of a landscape where I think you can really examine California,” Alfaro said. “I lift up the earth and underneath are all these layers, and one of these layers is Aztlán, our spiritual homeland. So for me, it’s a very profound idea.

A recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, Alfaro remains something of an itinerant homebody, traveling vast areas but keeping faith in his hometown (he grew up in Pico-Union), where he now cares for his ailing mother. He views his role as guardian as one of many devotional journeys he has undertaken in recent years; he also lost a brother and cared for his hospitalized father for a year, a subject he addressed in his 2013 solo exhibition “St. Jude.” »

“It was the greatest gift of my life that year,” Alfaro said. “I always loved my father and understood him, but from a distance. My father was very Mexican and traditional – the language, everything, he had a whole different way of looking at things.

Before his father passed away, Alfaro finally revealed that he had been abused as a child by a close family friend.

“It was like telling your best friend something he needed to know so you could move on,” Alfaro said. “I live with grief, but I don’t live with grief now, and it’s very different. So I care for my mother and grieve over her condition, but I don’t live in sorrow over her condition.

Learning to live with loss while continually adapting to altered assumptions is a challenge Alfaro knows well as a performing artist.

“I’m still in an old industry,” he said. “The challenge of American theater is that, in my mind, we were once at the center of civic debate, and I don’t think that’s the case today.” Instead of looking to artists and poets, we look to social media influencers, he added.

But he relies on advice a mentor gave him years ago.

“My only job as an artist is to change. Can I change?’” Alfaro asks, sitting in the vast marble lobby of the downtown performance hall. “Can I start again? Can I start from scratch?

One of his monks responds: “Change has come. We can’t go back now.

“Les Voyageurs” runs until October 15.

Los Angeles Times

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