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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Real Women Have Curves

"I was never taught how to say no." .—Carmen
Real Women Have Curves
Santana Dempsey, Cristina Frias and Blanca Araceli. (Photo: Philicia Endelman)
Containing five largely likable characters, no antagonist (beyond the straw man social norms of an appearance-obsessed America) and a ton of "you go girl!" affirmation, Real Women Have Curves is a far easier play to smile at than to admire. Josefina Lopez's bell-ringer of a comedy (which spawned a movie starring a then-unknown America Ferrara) is having a workmanlike revival at the Pasadena Playhouse and Seema Sueko's production is receiving accolades for bringing the Latina experience to the Playhouse's stage.

Well and good, but Sueko's production, despite its game cast and strong production values, butts up against a certain textual preachiness that keeps these not very interesting characters at a distance. Lopez, Sueko and the Real Women performers lay out the play's agenda, telling an audience exactly what to feel, when to feel it and why we should care. In the midst of this heavy messaging, our five heroines banter and complain, spill some secrets, embrace and unite. They even strip off their ordinary duds, don splashier clothes, crank up the music and have a mini fashion show. Score one for curves.

Our scene is a family-run sewing factory somewhere in an East Los Angeles warehouse. Homeless people and drug addicts populate the neighborhood, but business owner Estela Garcia (played by Cristina Frias) is more frightened of the cops. Unlike her workers, she does not have documentation. So if she is deported, the business, already on shaky ground, probably collapses.

Estela's employees include 42-year old Pancha (Ingrid Oliu), who aches for a child while everyone around her seems to be fertile, and Rosali (Diana DeLaCruz), who is addicted to diet pills. She also employs her own gossipy mother Carmen (Bianca Aracelli) and her younger sister Ana (Santana Dempsey) who dreams of going off to college to become a writer, but is instead stuck earning less than minimum wage to help her family survive.

We meet these women at the dawn of a weekend during which they have to put pedal to metal to complete an order of more than 100 dresses that will retail for $300 at Bloomingdale's. In the midst of their rushing to meet the deadline, machinery will misbehave, health will fail, resentment over absent wages will bubble over. And even amidst stultifyingly hot temperatures that turns the factory quite literally into a sweatshop, our friends still find ample time to eat, kick back, gossip and bond.

As the play's title suggests, pretty much everyone bears a self-image cross of some magnitude. Ana, the play's conscience, is utterly at home in her own skin and it's her defiantly upbeat speech on her body (delivered in her underwear) that gets her co-workers stripping, one-upping each other's blemishes to much audience laughter. Nonetheless, this is a squishy-fun moment rather than a charged one.

Since Lopez is steering this ship toward an uplifting outcome and since none of the perceived outside world threats manifest, it would be difficult to embrace the play's social discontent. Neither Sueko nor her cast is going for edginess. Even when they bristle at each other (Frias's Estela and Oliu's Pancha most frequently), it doesn't feel much like their hearts are steeled for battle. Exploited though they clearly are, these characters rarely come across as fighters. Not even Ana, who could logically be nursing years of pent-up frustration and kid sister resentment. Her world is the four walls of that ugly factory with its curtained-off toilet (where she hides her diary), graffiti-strewn windows and dingy interior.

Whether or not his research has taken him into east L.A. warehouses, scenic designer David F. Weiner has done a slick job bringing a hidden space to life.In the role that introduced a pre Ugly Betty Ferrara, Dempsey has plenty of youthful energy; she practically grooves instead of walking, and she has charisma to burn. But, like practically every other actor in the play, she is enacting a mouthpiece for Lopez's messages, and her character's "predicament" feels like it's destined for an easy resolution. Frias puts us in the corner of the potentially unsympathetic Estela and Oliu (who played Estela in the film) is solid as the dependable Pancha.

It has been nearly 15 years since Real Women Have Curves premiered, and both Lopez and the Boyle Heights Theater company she founded, Casa 0101 Theater, are still going strong. In fact, Lopez's latest play, Drunk Girl is about to open at Casa 0101. The new play's subject? "Exploring the struggles of women to have power over their bodies, their lives and their destinies." We know that women real women have curves. For the new work, let's hope they have some substance as well.

Real Women Have Curves by Josefina Lopez
Directed by Seema Sueko

Cast: Blanca Araceli, Santana Dempsey, Diana DeLaCruz, Cristina Frias, Ingrid Oliu
Scenic Designer: David F. Weiner
Costume Designer: Abel Alvarado
Lighting Designer: Josh Epstein
Sound Designer: Cricket S. Myers
Wig, Hair and Marke-Up Design: Raenae Kuaea Casting Director: Julia Flores
Production Stage Manager: Jessica R. Aguilar
Stage Manager: Daniel Trostler
General Manager: Joe Witt
Technical Director: Brad Enlow
Producing Associate/Company Manager: Kristen Hammack
Production Manager: Hethyr "Red" Verhoef
Plays through October 4, 2015 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. (626) 356-7259,
Running time: One hour, 40 minutes with one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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