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Theater review: 'The King of the Desert' at El Portal Forum Theatre

November 3, 2011 |  5:00 pm

King of the Desert
In "The King of the Desert," estimable actor René Rivera traces his path from a San Antonio barrio to the Juilliard School, and rediscovers himself in a solo show of noteworthy interest beyond its self-circumscribed specifics.

Written by Stacey Martino (Rivera's spouse), "King" starts with the house lights up. Bellowing out, "I know who I am!" Rivera enters from the lobby, launching a post-Pirandello monologue that seldom lets up.

"Hamlet" is a repeated motif -- "To be or not to be" en Español comes at the outset -- with Mayan lore, Catholic iconography and Mexican historical figures among the others. Yet what pops are Rivera's deceptively nonlinear anecdotes about growing up in Texas, from his tickling account of playing an avocado in a Thanksgiving pageant onward.

True, "King" isn't particularly novel in form, recalling numerous onstage memoirs. However, there's nothing ordinary about Rivera's mercurial range, which director Sal Romeo surrounds with a plush production. Designer Danuta Tomzynski's striking set, complete with freeway overpass, tunnel, barred-off Virgin of Guadalupe and graffiti, benefits from Jeremy Pivnick's masterful lighting. Mat Hale supplies painterly videos, Jade Puga and Richard Montes well judged sound cues.

Rivera could vocally differentiate his parents even more, though they, like his boyhood chum and his miscreant brother, are funny and wrenching. The final sequence -- Juilliard, marriage, fatherhood -- unfolds a shade hastily, suggesting a full-length piece still in the making. Still, school groups should flock, and any cultural demographic may find Rivera's heartfelt journey rewarding.

-- David C. Nichols

"The King of the Desert," El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.  8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Next week only, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Ends Dec. 4.  $20. (866) 811-4111, (818) 508-4200 or Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

Photo: René Rivera. Credit: Ed Kreiger.