THE ROMANCE OF MAGNIO RUBIO, Victory Gardens Theater. Standing tall at four feet, six inches, the hero of Lonnie Carter's play (adapted from Carlos Bulosan's short story) demonstrates that hope and a sense of humor can carry human beings through the darkest circumstances. The setting is 1930s California, where young Magno--a barely literate Filipino laborer--shares a chicken-coop bunkhouse with three other men working for 25 cents an hour. They all have their coping mechanisms--books, music, cards. But Magno is driven to work joyfully with the strength of five men because he has an ambition: to win the hand of a six-foot, 195-pound woman he knows only through letters and a magazine picture. As her requests for cash and gifts grow larger ("Western Union me, baby"), it's clear that Magno is in for a heart smashing.
Carter's singsong rhymed couplets give the piece a folktale quality enhanced by Fabian Obispo's songs, whose gorgeous harmonies are well rendered by the talented ensemble, at times to rousing percussion. Director-designer Loy Arcenas has created a set that conveys the raw discomfort of the migrant workers' cramped quarters, complete with a wire fence between actors and audience. In the midst of this dismal pit, Rodney To's Magno shines with a sweet vulnerability and unshakable zeal that make us cheer for him in the face of impossible odds.