Style may not be everything in Evelina Fernández’s Premeditation, but it plays a big part in making the playwright-actor’s comédie noire (or comedia negra) the exhilaratingly theatrical experience it is, and with Premeditation currently Ovation Award-nominated for Best Production, Direction, and Lighting Design, theatergoers can rejoice at the Latino Theatre Company’s decision to bring it back as part of the month-long Encuentro 2014 festival at downtown’s Los Angeles Theatre Center. Premeditation is as stylishly directed, performed, and designed a production as you’re likely to see this or any month—and that is saying something indeed.
Inspired by 1940s B&W film noir classics like Double Indemnity, This Gun For Hire, and The Postman Always Rings Twice (but with an added dollop of sabor chicano), Premeditation has unhappily married Esmeralda (Fernández) hiring hit man Mauricio (Sal López) to bump off her fuddy-duddy UCLA professor husband for no better reason than his annoying habit of neglecting to put down the toilet seat, tinkling on the floor, and leaving his dirty drawers underfoot post-shower… and that doesn’t begin to cover what happens outside the bathroom.
And pobre Esmeralda might find her plans going off without a hitch were it not for Fernando’s wife Lydia’s discovery of a slip of paper with Esme’s name and phone number on it in hubby’s pants pocket.
Before you know it, however, Premeditation has angry Lydia (Lucy Rodriguez) and bewildered Fernando (Geoffrey Rivas) using the wonders of GPS technology to track down their mutual spouses at the Shangri-La Hotel where the presumably canoodling Esmeralda and Mauricio are in fact busy working out the details of the hit.
It’s during the duo’s discussion of the hows and more specifically the whys of the proposed contract murder that despite moody shadows and light (provided by lighting design Ovation nominee Pablo Santiago) and a dramatic musical soundtrack (courtesy of sound designer John Zalewski), we come to realize that façade noire aside, Premeditation is most definitely comedic in intent.
After all, couldn’t Esmeralda tell Mauricio at least that Fernando has cheated on her, or badmouthed her sister, or at the very least something that would justify putting a bullet in his back?
But no. It soon dawns on Mauricio that Fernando’s infractions are no worse than his own and that Esmeralda is as much a nagger as Lydia, if not more so, while Esme finds herself increasingly exasperated at Fernando’s inability to sympathize with her and, more importantly, get on with the hit.
It’s from this point on that the laughs begin flying fast and furious, particularly once all four spouses have come to find themselves gun to gun to gun to gun … and Premeditation has turned into that most unlikely of amalgams, a screwball noir.
Credit current Ovation nominee José Luis Valenzuela for his supremely stylish direction and Urbanie Lucero for choreography that includes not just a sensually danced tango but the cast’s highly stylized rumbas with moveable furniture pieces in a series of scene changes leading up to the Shangri-La hotel room where most of Premeditation ends up taking place.
In bestowing a Best Lighting Design nomination on Santiago, Ovation voters must surely have taken into consideration not just lighting tricks like film noir shadows cast against hotel room walls, but Santiago’s highly imaginative 1940s film-noiresque projection design as well, black-and-white images that both underscore and foreshadow what’s transpiring live before our eyes.
François-Pierre Couture’s simple but stylish scenic design not only allows for ample audience imagination but holds off one breathtaking surprise for the play’s climactic scene. Sound designer John Zalewski’s Latin-American musical underscoring and his many evocative (and occasionally amusing) effects add enormously to Premeditation’s high concept style.
Ballsiest of all design elements are costumer Naila Aladdin Sanders’ WWII era fashions—trench coats, fedoras, wide-brimmed ladies’ hats, and short wide neckties, ballsy because Premeditation is set in the here-and-now of cell phones, credit cards, Punk’d, texting, Oprah and Dr. Phil, and the abovementioned wonders of the Global Positioning System. Add to that a pair of over-the-top early-‘40s women’s wigs and you’ve got one of Sanders’ most exciting designs, one presumably conceived of in Fernández’s original script.
And speaking of script, the playwright/star has given Premeditation some of the snappiest dialog in town, including a pair of simultaneous four-part conversations, the first between bickering spouses, the second between husbands and other men’s wives, each of them an impeccably timed and played gem.
All four performances are pitch-perfectly heightened delights, from Fernández’s sizzlingly flairful take on Stanwyck, Turner, Crawford, and Davis, to López’s blazing dynamo of a hit man, to Rivas’s deliciously milquetoasty lit prof, to Rodriguez’s fabulously foul-mouthed bleach-blonde, and all but Fernández provide amusing cameo bits to boot.
As befits any noir worth its smoke, plenty of cigarettes get inhaled and exhaled, an instance where e-cigs might have been a more considerate choice to those who’d prefer to enjoy their theatergoing smoke-free, even if said smoke is of the herbal variety.
Henry “Heno” Fernández is stage manager and Esperanza America assistant stage manager.
Under normal circumstances, those who missed Premeditation’s initial April-May run would have snoozed and lost their chance to catch this now three-times Ovation-nominated humdinger of a play.
Fortunately for snoozers like this reviewer, Premeditation is back in town, a second chance rarely afforded L.A. theatergoers, and one well worth the sending up of fireworks as dazzling as those onstage through November 8.
Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles.
October 23, 2014
Photos: Ed Krieger