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Nanny Gate

TheatreWorks looks at maternal urges in 'Living Out'

By Marianne Messina

WHEN ACTRESS Isabelle Ortega recently visited an ESL class at Atherton High School, she asked students if they knew of any relatives who were nannies. "Most of them said, 'My mom is a nanny,'" Ortega reports. She's been visiting local schools to invite students to the upcoming TheatreWorks play by Lisa Loomer, Living Out. The play focuses on two working women with children, Latina nanny Ana Hernandez (Ortega) and the Anglo lawyer who hires her, Nancy Robin.

Hernandez has left one young son back in El Salvador and is working to bring him to the United States. And her story strikes home with many of the Atherton High students, who tell Ortega they are recent immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Living Out is often a humorous play, and since some of the humor is rooted in stereotypes, Ortega brings the issue up in classes. The Atherton class was ready for her: "When I first got there," Ortega recounts, "there was a young boy who you could see has been hurt a lot. And when I said I was Colombian, he said, 'Oh, did you bring some cocaine with you?' I just smiled and didn't say anything, and then at one point, the same boy says, 'Well, what is stereotyping?' And I said, 'What you just did when I told you that I was Colombian and you immediately equated that to drug dealing—that's stereotyping.'"

Living Out's director, Armando Molina, found that he was attracted early on to socially responsible humor. "Not just humor for its own sake," Molina says, "but humor that said something sort of more profound about our society." Molina has worked with Living Out from its first production in L.A. to New York, where he put his stamp on the script, to Minneapolis, where he took charge as director. Like Molina, Ortega comes to TheatreWorks from the Minneapolis production, but the two face different challenges. His concerns are technical, like how the very intimate Minneapolis production will translate onto TheatreWorks' much larger stage. "The larger space is going to test the amount of fluidity; it's going to test the speed," Molina says. "I would prefer the faster the better, because it's episodic, and it's multiple scenes, and we don't want to let people have an opportunity to read a novel between scenes."

Ortega, however, is glad to have the chance to fill in some of her character's backstory—is Ana lying when she says she has a mother in San Francisco? "When we did it in Minneapolis, we did it so fast—within three weeks we developed both the Spanish version and an English version." Ortega likes to work with a very detailed biography, and all the more so with Loomer's writing. "Lisa writes like a Rubik's Cube; everything in the play has a connection." Another issue for Ortega—one she finds fascinating—is that playing Ana to a different actress such as Nancy (Rebecca Dines) has actually brought out a new Ana in herself. "A play is a song with words," Ortega says. "It might be the same song ... but depending on the partner that you have, the dance could be completely different."

Isabelle Ortega intends to visit at least 10 more Bay Area classrooms, encouraging people who identify with Ana's background to come see the play. Molina has found that the presence of Latinos, especially nannies, in the audience electrifies the theater. The show's split perspectives can lead to lively post-show dialogue, something Molina and Ortega hope for. "You're able to then put everything on the table," says Ortega. Dialogue is part of the reason she and Molina have been so invested in Living Out—"Whether it's difficult and it's angry," says Ortega, "You're talking about it, and hopefully things change."

Living Out, a TheatreWorks production, plays Wednesday­Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm (no matinee Oct 9 and 30)) and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (no evening show Oct. 24 and 31) at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $20­$50. (650.903.6000)

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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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