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While The Capeman, the much-maligned musical by Paul Simon about a Puerto Rican killer in the 1950s, had announced its imminent closing a few short weeks after opening, Latino performance art arrived in grand style at the Cort Theatre. John Leguizamo’s latest one-person show, Freak (directed and developed by David Bar Katz), was attracting the audiences of which Simon and company could only dream.
As in his earlier shows, Spic-o-rama and Mambo Mouth, Leguizamo hyperkinetically portrayed dozens of characters. Those two previous pieces and Leguizamo’s brief-lived television show, House of Buggin’, took their audiences on tours through Latino (and other) stereotypes, carefully and creatively undermining each image with cutting humor. Leguizamo masterfully crafted a view of the Latino/a worlds that rendered their images of that community one-dimensional. In Freak, Leguizamo turned inward for a dissection of his own life (the show’s subtitle is A Semi-Demi-Quasi-Pseudo Autobiography).
The show began with a large screen on stage and a voice-over of Leguizamo’s parents, Fausto and Lala, having sex. Bursting through the screen and an image of his conception, Leguizamo immediately played to his audience, welcoming them to the show. This interaction would continue throughout the performance, despite the fact that the monologue was obviously divided into short pieces. The vignettes in this show ran the gamut from poignant to crude. In one moment, Leguizamo would relate his discovery that his father was a dishwasher at a restaurant. In another, he was jumping rope with his own ejaculate after masturbating for the first time, and in yet another was trying to have sex with a German woman at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. From his grandmother’s and father’s alcoholism, to his beatings, to family poverty, Leguizamo plumbed the depths of his life to contort all his pain into humor. For instance, when young Johnito asks his father why he doesn’t quit drinking, Fausto replies, “‘Cause I’m not a quitter,” and then offers his son ten dollars to swig tequila.
Leguizamo performed each character with ease, throwing his entire body into caricature. Each representation had a different gait, posture, gesture or tic. As an actor, this is Leguizamo’s greatest [End Page 85] asset: his ability to commit his entire being to create other selves. At times, this attention to the fullest possible creation of characters led to Leguizamo jerking spasmodically between three or four different portrayals. For instance, during a conversation about sex, he presented himself as a teenager as well as three different friends, Bobo, Xerox and Lollipop. Vocally, Leguizamo has always been a great mimic, exaggerating every accent from his own to the white theatrical agent who tells him, “You’re too ethnic.”
Despite all the caricatures, Freak reflects Leguizamo’s search for identity. Some of the funniest passages had young Leguizamo trying to find his place in a variety of ethnicities. For example, in an Italian neighborhood, when he tries to embrace his “fellow swarthy, olive-skinned Mediterranean brothers and sisters,” they call him “dumb fucking ugly dumb dumb fucking ugly dumb dumb ugly fucking dumb dumb dumb.” While dating an African American woman, he is named “Translucent Man” when she sees him naked. Or, at a bar in an Irish neighborhood on St. Patrick’s Day he says to a woman, “Why are you looking at me like that? Is my shillelagh hanging out? Are my shenanigans banging about out?” Finally, Leguizamo discovers his elusive identity in the theatre, with his Uncle Sanny who sneaks into Broadway shows at intermission. In his stolen seat at A Chorus Line, Leguizamo sees the character of Morales, “a Latin person . . . [who] didn’t have a gun or hypodermic needle in her hand and [who] wasn’t a hooker or a maid and [who] wasn’t servicing anybody so it was hard to tell if she was Latin.”
Underlying the Freak show were hope...