Reviews, Quotes and Articles
from El Portal Theatre
“Three lifetime members of the New York Actors Studio -- playwright Stacey Martino, her actor husband René Rivera and director Valentino Ferreira – have entwined their talents to reveal a MEMORABLE…CAPTIVATING PANORAMA of the Mexican American experience as chronicled in the fictional history of one San Antonio-based family. Philadelphia-born Martino utilizes the extended memories of her husband’s family members and friends, culled from conversations and interviews, to bring to life a colorful menagerie of folk -- historical and current, real and legendary – all portrayed by Rivera. RIVERA SUMPTUOUSLY INHABITS ALL THE VARIED SOULS that torture and nurture a poverty-stricken Mexican American boy's psyche during his journey to personal discovery. ADMIRABLY PACED by director Ferreira, RIVERA MOVES SEAMLESSLY between the everyday adventures and misadventures of a growing boy, who slowly begins to understand that he has a goal and direction in life, and the imagined beings of his mind that help him escape the relentless unhappiness and dysfunction that inflicts his family. RIVERA IS ENDEARINGLY VULNERABLE as the boy explains, in times of crisis, he has learned to survive by becoming anyone other than himself, from a Mexican Revolutionary poet, to a Mayan Shaman, to a werewolf and beyond.
HE ALSO EXUDES A COMICAL SENSE OF WONDER AND DISBELIEF as he tentatively takes each step forward along a path that will eventually lead him out of his San Antonio barrio to a fully paid scholarship to Juilliard School in New York and eventually to the Broadway stage, television and film. THE ACTOR IS PARTICULARLY MEMORABLE WHEN HE ASSUMES THE PERSONA OF THE TWO GREAT TRAGIC FIGURES IN THE BOY’S LIFE: HIE EMBITTERED, LIFE-DEFEATRED FATHER AND HIS DRUG-ADDDICTED OLDER BROTHER. The relentless negativity emanating from these two authority figures makes even more admirable the boy’s journey to personal fruition…this is a new work that has the undivided attention of Martino, Rivera and Ferriera. AS A STAGEWORK, THE PRODUCTION HAS THE POTENTIAL LEGS FOR A TOUR AND PERHAPS A RETURN OF THIS TRIO TO NEW YORK FOR AN OFF-BROADWAY RUN!”
– Julio Martinez, Latin Heat Magazine
"The King of the Desert made Pick of the Week/Best Bet in the L.A. Life section of the Los Angeles Daily News!"
“Handsomely directed by Sal Romeo… Martino's economical show (it runs roughly 85 minutes) is accessible to a larger audience, tapping into more universal truths about the inherent challenges in blazing an unpaved path and the triumphs in reaching milestones along the way….Desert holds our interest throughout, mostly because of his (Rivera's) galvanizing performance…..Set designer Danuta Tomzynski is also to be commended …..Puga and Richard Montes' sound work and Jeremy Pivnick's lighting design are also timed well, helping tell the story without ever calling attention to the work…….Desert begins with Rivera screaming "I know who I am!" And by the time this engrossing production has concluded, so do we.”
"The King of the Desert at the El Portal Reigns Supreme!....leaves you breathless...a brutally honest and compelling performance...I am dumbfounded he is not annually nominated for an Oscar statue....Rivera's complete bravado and humility are juxtaposed so closely yet so evenly on stage...This production moves along so tightly that I didn't care there was no intermission,...I didn't want it to end...Rene Rivera is Al Pacino's acting soul mate...You must watch this man work!...(Sal Romeo's) impeccable direction, takes full advantage of placement still creating an intimacy matched only by Rivera's acting....Martino and Rivera bring Mexican ancestry to a whole new level of respect and symbolism.... I left the theater feeling more alive than when I went in...80 minutes of wonderment and knowledge...The King of the Desert is hip, hypnotic and hyper-intense!"
— Valley Scene Magazine
“‘Desert’ is a riveting, profound, and moving portrayal of a middle-class family from the 1960s to the present that offers a particular version of the Mexican-American experience. You might want to see it before the next GOP presidential debate”……..“this one-act, 80-minute production is packed with so many vivid scenes -- many of which involve running, jumping, or fighting -- that it simply couldn't last any longer. Rivera would appear to have the stamina of an NBA point guard.”……“In autobiography -- or biography written by one's spouse -- what doesn't make the cut is as important as what does. From what must have been hundreds of possible scenes, Martino and Rivera have chosen wisely. Their collaboration and the directing of Sal Romeo has produced a superb play that could not be better-timed. ‘The King of the Desert’ is more genuinely American than any super-sized patriotic rally.”
— Thomas Waldman, www.nohoartsdistrict.com
" Visceral and electric......Rivera buzzes with energy, a human pinball careening around the stage. Incredibly passionate and expressive, he demonstrates a cheeky sense of humor as well as determination and drive….. Jeremy Pivnick perfectly set scenes with his moody, evocative lighting, beautifully blending with Danuta Tomzynski's simple, elegant set. Both anchored by strong visual images projected that further refine place. The King of the Desert grabs you by the seat of the pants and doesn't let you go."
— Mary Mallory, The Tolucan Times
“Riveting and profound..a superb play that could not be bettered timed."
— NoHO Arts.com
“...A post-Pirandello monologue that seldom lets up...nothing ordinary about Rivera's mercurial range...school groups should flock...”
— LA Times
“ René Rivera Gets Royal Reception Opening Night. A near capacity crowd at El Portal Theatre gave René Rivera a standing ovation at the end of his one-person performance at last Thursday's opening night production of ‘The King of the Desert.’ …. Both the writing and the acting are brilliant and insightful. Martino's intricately structured script and crisp sentences provide the material that Rivera uses to build a highly polished and deeply moving performance….Rivera and director Sal Romeo we see true masters at work….Rivera's performance was masterful last year and is masterful this time. What's taken a quantum leap is the physicality of what he does on stage…. ‘What we saw was a dance!’….“Romeo and Rivera have taken full advantage of the opportunities which the larger stage has offered them. Don't miss the opportunity to see the fruits of their work. If you missed the play last year, don't blow it again. If you did see the play last time, you'll enjoy it even more the second time around.
— Andres Chavez, The San Fernando Valley Sun
“ A Passionate, dramatic, oft times humorous account of one actor’s life and his journey of self discovery.”.……" Rivera gives an amazing performance with humor and high energy."
— Theda Kleinhans Reichman, Valley News Group
“Visceral and electric…grabs you by the seat of your pants and doesn't let you go.”
— Tolucan Times
“The writing and acting are brilliant and insightful...don't miss the opportunity to see the fruits of their work.”
— San Fernando Valley Sun
“A passionate, dramatic, oft times humorous account…an amazing performance with humor and high energy.” — Valley News group
“A Passionate one-man show.”
" Like Rivera, we discover how art can transform our history and release our inner beingness."
— Robert Machray, Blog Critics.org
"To be or not to be" is a question oft asked in Stacey Martino's The King of the Desert, the one-man show about and starring Martino's husband, René Rivera, at El Portal Theatre. Rivera is an actor of Latino descent who ascended from an inauspicious Texas barrio to become a successful actor. But the Shakespearean quote isn't the most fundamental question asked in Desert.
No, the question that matters most is how? How does Rivera define himself as he traverses the arduous path to success? In Desert, a co-production of the American Latino Theatre Company and Coactive Content (of which Martino is founder and artistic director), the playwright details the lengths Rivera went to find and be true to himself, as well as the toll this pursuit took on his body, mind and soul.
Handsomely directed by Sal Romeo, Rivera acts out his meager Texas upbringing, creating distinct portraits of his various friends and family members as well as those he encountered upon arriving in New York to attend The Juilliard School. Breaking out, he soon learns, is just as hard as breaking in. The actor finds himself repeatedly typecast as either a criminal or an illegal immigrant. And yet he perseveres, turning his frustration into fuel. He ultimately appears opposite Al Pacino in Salome and in other productions directed by Oscar-winning talents like Kevin Kline and Estelle Parsons.
There is a dual built-in audience for Desert -- those who share Rivera's Mexican heritage and those who empathize with any backstage story. But Martino's economical show (it runs roughly 85 minutes) is also accessible to a larger audience, tapping into more universal truths about the inherent challenges in blazing an unpaved path and the triumphs in reaching milestones along the way. Further, the play illustrates that it is possible to bridge one's past and one's future even if the realms seem to be mutually exclusive worlds.
And even though the outcomes are foreordained -- we wouldn't be watching this show if Rivera hadn't realized his dreams as a performer -- Desert holds our interest throughout, mostly because of his galvanizing performance, which embodies the passion it took to make good on his ambition rather than merely describing it. He doesn't merely imitate his friends and family; he suggests, creating deeper and more memorable portraits.
Set designer Danuta Tomzynski is also to be commended for a detailed set that supports the story of Rivera's life with depictions of graffiti, a freeway overpass, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Jade Puga and Richard Montes' sound work and Jeremy Pivnick's lighting design are also timed well, helping tell the story without ever calling attention to the work.
Desert begins with Rivera screaming "I know who I am!" And by the time this engrossing production has concluded, so do we.
“Visceral and electric, The King of the Desert features wonderful acting by René Rivera....Written by Rivera's wife Stacey Martino as an exercise in learning more about her husband's past....Rivera buzzes with energy, a human pinball careening around the stage. Incredibly passionate and expressive, he demonstrates a cheeky sense of humor as well as determination and drive. Director Sal Romeo conceives the production, keeping Rivera constantly on his toes dancing around the stage. Timing is spot-on between both actor and light/sound cues, adding to the dramatic effect.”
“Jeremy Pivnick perfectly sets scenes with his moody, evocative lighting, beautifully blending with Danuta Tomzynski's simple, elegant set, which combines touches of a church, home, and underpass to suggest locations. Both are anchored by strong visual images projected on a high screen that further refine place. Intense and energetic, The King of the Desert grabs you by the seat of the pants and doesn't let go.”
The Tolucan Times
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…his boyhood chum and his miscreant brother are funny and wrenching. Written by Stacey Martino (Rivera's spouse)in a post-Pirandello monologue that seldom lets up, 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…school groups should flock, and any cultural demographic (to see) Rivera's heartfelt journey....
Los Angeles Times
“The King of the Desert" is a passionate, dramatic, oft times humorous account of one actor's life and his journey to self discovery. The King of the Desert was written by Stacey Martino for her talented husband, René Rivera, who stars. Rivera gives an amazing performance with humor and high energy as he reveals the highs and the very lows in his life and career.”
Valley News Group
"The King of the Desert is a passionate one-man show. This is a production meant to inform and inspire. Like (René) Rivera, we discover how art can transform our history and release our inner beingness.”
“The King of the Desert is a riveting, profound, and moving portrayal of a middle-class family from the 1960s to the present that offers a particular version of the Mexican-American experience…¦this one-act, 80-minute production is packed with so many vivid scene. In autobiography -- or biography written by one's spouse -- what doesn't make the cut is as important as what does. From what must have been hundreds of possible scenes, (Stacey) Martino (the playwright) and (René) Rivera (the performer) have chosen wisely. Their collaboration and the directing of Sal Romeo has produced a superb play that could not be better-timed. “The King of the Desert” is more genuinely American than any super-sized patriotic rally.”
“A near capacity crowd at El Portal Theatre gave René Rivera a standing ovation at the end of his one-person performance at last Thursday's opening night production of "˜The King of the Desert." "King of the Desert" was written by Rivera's wife, Stacey Martino. Both the writing and the acting are brilliant and insightful. Martino's intricately structured script and crisp sentences provide the material that Rivera uses to build a highly polished and deeply moving performance. The play shows aspects of what it is to be a Chicano growing up in the United States that will ring true to any Chicano, and Latino, audience that sees it. But this in no way detracts from the universality of the work and any audience that sees it will find things that also ring true. Rivera's performance was masterful....He seemed to flow from one part of the stage to the other. Rivera brought a physical reality on stage that was a joy to see. Much of the credit for the blocking, the choreography, goes to (Sal) Romeo. Don't miss the opportunity to see the fruits of their work.”
The San Fernando Valley Sun
A Special Play for Local Students, Which Everyone Should See
Eastern Group Publications - http://egpnews.com
Students from East Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Compton and North Hollywood will be treated to a series of special morning and afternoon performances of "The King of the Desert," in its current run at El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. Organized by the play's co-producer, David Llauger-Meiselman, and facilitated by Youth Policy Institute, these performances will be followed by informal discussions with the principle actor and the students about the issues raised in the play.
"King of the Desert" is a wholly introspective play, a profound and moving work about a Chicano's coming of age, as he is transformed from a boy in a San Antonio barrio to achieving his dream of becoming a professional actor and a mature family man.
René Rivera (pictured) takes command of the stage in his one-man show, "The King of the Desert," the story of a Mexican American boy's journey of self-discovery through adulthood and the realization of his dreams, now playing at El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. (Photo by Ed Krieger)
Plays about the Chicano experience are a rarity in American theater. Really great plays are rarer still. "The King of the Desert," ranks among the very best plays that deal with what it means to be a Mexican growing up in America. For Chicanos and Latinos, this play speaks directly to their experience. When was the last time a movie or TV show did that?
René Rivera, the sole actor in the play, did go from a San Antonio barrio to attending the Juilliard School in New York City on a full scholarship. "King of the Desert" is based on his life. Rivera gives a brilliant performance, a tour de force that shows an actor in complete command of his art.
Many Chicanos have come out of the play saying "That was my story." For Leno Daiz, who came to East L.A. from Juarez, Mexico in 1927 and who lived in San Antonio for many years before returning to L.A., the play reminded him of his own history.
"It has to do with identity. This man feels strong for his culture, his background, his forefathers, he's a Chicano, a Mexican. I enjoyed it very much because I lived some of that stuff growing up," Diaz said.
Rivera bares his soul on stage and doing such a personal play was an incredible challenge. "I'd never worked on something like this before, something as personal, yet big and universal and deeply, deeply rooted. I was afraid of it, I was intimidated by it and because of that I accepted it. I accepted the challenge and it continues to be a challenge," Rivera said.
The deeply moving script was written by Rivera's wife Stacey Martino. She spent many hours talking with Rivera's family in Texas and with Rivera himself. Her script reflects part of her relationship with him. "The King of the Desert" grew out of my hunger to understand my husband's life and to learn about my daughter's Mexican American heritage. It was my own journey into the past in order to bring our family closer and alchemize the more difficult aspects of life," Martino stated.
From a purely theatrical viewpoint, this is an interesting play. The plot does not follow a linear chronology but instead moves back and forth between past and present. The central question of the play, who am I, is established by no less an authority than the Prince of Denmark. Hamlet's famous soliloquy is performed in English and then in Spanish, losing none of its power in the translation, and sets the tone for the rest of the play.
The play follows two streams of conciseness. In the present, the character address an unseen individual about his fears and concerns. In the past, key events in his life are revealed: His childhood in San Antonio, his dream of becoming an actor, attending Julliard, acting on Broadway and in films. Movement between present and past is generally seamless and the two streams merge at the end of the play.
There are many themes that are familiar to Chicano audiences. Growing up in a poor neighborhood, police harassment, being told you're not American which leads to the feeling that the larger society will never allow a Mexican to succeed, no matter how many generations he's lived here.
There is also the positive: the love within family; the teacher who believes and encourages you; the father who tells you to be proud of your ancestors who built one world's great civilizations and to remember that you are a king of the desert, finally achieving his dream of becoming a successful actor.
René Rivera commands the stage and not just because he is the only actor. Rivera entices the audience to experience his life with him, to sit in the front seat of the emotional roller coaster ride Rivera takes you on.
Rivera plays all the characters and he is able to give each one a distinct personality, whether it is through a change in voice, stance or attitude or all of the above. In one humorous scene he is breaking up with four different girl friends, seemingly at the same time, and it takes just a few words and his expression to tell you everything about the relationship.
El Portal's stage is surrounded on three sides by the audience which means that the actor has to act with both the front and the back of his body because the audience will generally be watching one or the other. In lesser hands, this could have been a real problem but in Rivera and Director Sal Romeo, who worked out Rivera's movements on stage, we see true masters at work. Rivera seems to flow from one part of the stage to the other. One artist and former dancer who saw the play declared, "What we saw was a dance!"
Indeed, in the early scenes as he spoke to his mother and father, he was adagio, moving slowly his body under total control. He would pirouette, turning his body quickly, from one character to another, each with a distinct voice and attitude. Whether he was en pointe, standing on tip toes, as he created a werewolf or giving a vivid impression of a rider on horse back, un jinete, Rivera brought a physical reality on stage that was a joy to see.
"The King of the Desert" is firmly rooted in Rivera's life as a Chicano in the United States. It is through the exploration of the particulars of his experiences that the universality of the human condition is found. All great literature works like this. One cannot separate William Faulkner from Oxford, Mississippi, James Joyce from Dublin, Ireland or Leon Tolstoy from 19th century Russia.
"This is a universal story. It's a story that everyone, in my opinion, is connected to," Rivera said. "I feel what I want to give to the people is that they walk away having feelings about themselves and being reflective on their lives and on themselves, in relation to their spouses and to their children and to their families in general and to humanity in general."
Going to the theater is not something done as easily as going to the movies. But making the effort to go to North Hollywood to see this play is definitely worth the effort. Bring your friends and family. You'll have an experience to remember.
The King of the Desert is in its current run at the Forum Theatre at the El Portal Theatre; 5269 Lankershim Boulevard (at Weddington Street), North Hollywood, CA 91601 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m., until December 4, 2011. Except for the weekend of November 11th -13th A performance will be held tonight, November 10, at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $20 each for General Admission. Tickets for Students, Seniors, Veterans and Guild Members are $15 each. For reservations and further information, call the Box Office at (866) 811-4111 or (818) 508-4200, or buy online at www.elportaltheatre.com. Tickets for Groups of eight or more are $10 each, call (323) 315-0015.
A portion of the proceeds from performances throughout the run of the show will benefit the National Latino Children's Institute, The Oscar De La Hoya Foundation and The Youth Policy Institute. A Talk Back Question and Answer Session with members of the play¹s cast and crew will be held at the conclusion of each Sunday matinee performance.