Erasmo Guerra reviews this Bronx coming-of-age story about two Boricua brothers for The New York Daily News.
At the final dress rehearsal for the one-man show “Growing up Gonzales,” Felix Rojas was dragging a ladder across the stage to hang a projection screen.
The 49-year-old writer, director and co-producer said he’s used to “doing just about everything.” Not just in the lifetime he’s spent in theater, but as an outreach worker who serves the homeless in the same basement of the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church on the upper East Side, where “Growing up Gonzales” will run until Feb. 25.
A Bronx coming-of-age story of two Puerto Rican brothers, “Gonzales” is narrated by both older brother Johnny and the younger Cisco, whose journals are discovered after his death.
The play, in English, begins with a slide show of tongue-in-cheek slang: “Bochinche: Gossip. Always true.” “Bodega: Where Spanish people without cars shop.” “Merengue: Dry humping for adults. Thank you, Dominican Republic!”
There’s a great mix of hysterical and tragic anecdotes about childhood. “My first week in Puerto Rico … they slaughtered a pig in honor of my arrival — right in front of me. I was 9 years old,” Cisco says. When he catches Abuela picking through drunk Abuelo’s pockets, she hisses, “I’m not stealing, I’m budgeting.”
An earlier version of “Gonzales,” which Rojas says was a standup routine, ran last year at the 6th Street Playhouse.
The current, more theatrical production, still feels too loosely strung together. But the punch of the individual stories will keep you pinned to your seat, as will the pleasure of watching Andres Chulisi Rodríguez, the 43-year-old Brooklyn-born actor who plays all the parts.
With his rich, hoarse voice and parade of accents, he could be the love child of stage legend Harvey Fierstein and sitcom queen Sofia Vergara. Rojas said he found Rodríguez through Facebook and pretty much cast him after watching his YouTube videos.
“When I first read the script,” Rodríguez said, pausing to break into laughter, “it brought me down memory lane. I was like, ‘Wow, I remember this,’ ” even though he did not grow up in the Bronx.
Rojas, who was born and raised on Prospect Ave., got pulled into the theatrical world by his two older brothers. “Whatever they did, I did,” he explained.
He first joined them in the Family Repertory Company, and when they moved on — one is a guidance counselor, the other an HIV prevention advocate — Rojas left the theater. Fifteen years passed offstage, then Rojas’ grown son found his old, abandoned scripts. “He asked me, ‘Why’d you stop writing, Dad?’ ” Rojas recalled. “I didn’t have an answer for him.”
When he woke up the next morning, his son had downloaded a scriptwriting program onto his computer. “That night I started writing and I didn’t stop,” Rojas said.
That was two years ago.
While “Gonzales” is a fictional story, Rojas says he draws his inspiration from real life.
“I have a really bad memory,” he said. “So most of this is based on something — but made bigger. I take artistic license to expand and explore and exaggerate.”
After two months of rehearsals, the show opened last Thursday. His son worked as a tech, cuing audio and video projections.
“I’m exhausted,” Rojas said. “And I’m excited to see how the audience is going to react to all the insanity that goes on.”
“Growing up Gonzales” runs through Feb. 25 at the Jan Hus Playhouse, 351 E. 74th St., 8 p.m., $33.
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