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Cocks Have Claws and Wings to Fly

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COCKS HAVE CLAWS AND WINGS TO FLY

Latino Chicago Theater Company

Amparo Garcia has assembled a fascinating collection of potentially explosive elements in her first play, Cocks Have Claws and Wings to Fly, being given its world premiere by Latino Chicago Theater Company. She's created a family so full of anger, pain, and desperation that it teeters on the brink of self-destruction throughout the play's two hours. If you make it through this play and are still committed to going home for Christmas this year, you're a braver theatergoer than I.

The event that seems to have broken the family apart is the recent senseless murder of the father. Youngest son Guero (Carlos Tamayo), who witnessed the killing, is so racked with guilt that he escapes into drugs. Mama (Laurie Martinez) has made a career out of caring for the nearly helpless Guero but never attends to her own wounds. And her devotion to her son has taken a decidedly incestuous turn: watching Guero drop his pants so that Mama can give him a shot of vitamin B-12 is pretty unsettling.

But Garcia is too intelligent a writer to hang the entire play on the father's murder, in effect placing responsibility for the family's troubles on an external force. She makes it clear that the family's decades-old curse is a combination of fate and fatalism. By age 14 Mama was married and had a child while her husband ran around with other women. Cast into a desperately unhappy situation, Mama decided she deserved nothing better. Twenty years later her only way of dealing with her debilitating guilt is to intone repeatedly: "I've done so many bad things in my life."

Cocks is fundamentally about the terrifying and pathetic figure of Mama, whom Martinez plays with great conviction. Throughout the evening, Mama uses her razor-sharp talons to cling to her children and to tear them to shreds. Son Pedro (Noe Cuellar) can barely function in his mother's presence. When his lover Alfredo (Gustavo Mellado) talks about the baby they will soon adopt, Pedro pulls away, terrified that he will turn into his mother if given a child to raise. Daughter Sofia (Elisa Alvarado) avoids confronting her mother by psychologizing everyone around her, even taking occasional notes as she talks to her brothers. But Sofia's hostility is hardly contained: when Mama tells her that she's pregnant, Sofia bites her.

As you can see, Garcia takes on an enormous amount of material in her play, and her ambition is to be commended. Cocks is a sprawling, passionate, at times clumsy, at times thrilling epic. But with so much going on, the play often wanders when it needs to drive forward, especially during the second act. Overall the evening is not cohesive. It's no surprise that Cocks is Garcia's first play: she's clearly struggling to find a way to contain so many warring emotions in a single work.

Garcia is most successful when she writes least. Cocks is very text-heavy: often characters explain their way through a scene rather than live through it. But when Garcia allows silence to fall, the results are magical. Watching Pedro and Sofia sit in uncomfortable silence with Mama's highly medicated fiance Santiago (brilliantly played by Horacio Sanz) tells us more about these characters than ten pages of dialogue. When Mama cannot leave the room without adjusting Pedro's pillow even though she knows how much her fussing infuriates her son, her character achieves a fullness that words can only approach.

At its least successful, Cocks forces its emotional hand. Nearly every scene in the first act leads to an explosive confrontation--between Mama and Sofia, between Pedro and Alfredo, between Sofia and her boyfriend Scott (Tony Ramos). Characters make huge emotional leaps, literally threatening to kill each other or themselves by the time the scene is over. Not only do these scenes seem a bit strained in themselves, but having so many of them in succession borders on melodrama. The deeply rooted family tensions Garcia wants to explore require a more sophisticated dramatization.

Director Edward F. Torres provides a strong visual sense for the quieter moments in the play. Mama's wedding, for example, is presented as a simple, solemn walk down the aisle of the theater with Mama holding a dead flower over her head. As the action heats up, however, Torres's stage becomes a bit cluttered and his actors tend to wander, muddying scenes that are already difficult to follow.

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