If the social isolation of the pandemic made you feel like a cloistered monk at times, well, Luis Alfaro knows your pain — and perhaps your blessings as well.
Holed up in his Koreatown apartment, the native Angeleno playwright and USC professor said, he endured “a little bit of what probably everybody was going through, a little bit of a longing and depression, anxiety.”
But he also received what he calls “gifts” during that surrealistic rupture in the space-time continuum. He found community by shopping for his elderly Korean and Salvadorian neighbors. He had more leisure to contemplate and cultivate his inner life as an artist and as a person.
“I was digging deeper in the writing. I was seeking out a different kind of experience,” Alfaro said in an interview last week at downtown’s Los Angeles Theatre Center, where “The Travelers,” his spiritually questing drama about four monastic priests whose shaky brotherhood is shattered when a gunshot victim staggers into their midst, opened last Thursday.
“I noticed that almost all my friends were asking harder, bigger questions when I was at the theater,” Alfaro continued. “Everybody was wrestling with what happened, why are the subscribers not coming back. And it was clear from my own point of view, I wouldn’t come back to the same rituals. I’m a different person and I’m changed.”
The tension between clinging to old beliefs and antiquated liturgies, versus jettisoning them in search of a more profound and complex truth, animates “The Travelers.” The play was first staged at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, one of Alfaro’s several longstanding theatrical domeciles, along with the Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where he was resident artist from 1995 to 2005. The L.A. production is being presented by the Latino Theater Company in association with Magic Theatre and Campo Santo.
Evelina Fernández and José Luis Valenzuela, the couple who run the Center and the Latino Theater Company, have known Alfaro since he was doing performance art pieces decades ago, portraying his aunt. In a pink slip. On roller skates.
When he saw the San Francisco production of “The Travelers,” Valenzuela said, “It spoke to me in a totally different way than some of his other plays,” and he asked Alfaro if he could bring it to Los Angeles.
“It’s a philosophical play about humanity,” Valenzuela said, “and how do we relate to each other as humans, and what that means, and this relationship to religion – how religion talks to us about humanity.”
Set in a Central Valley monastery inhabited by a quartet of Carthusians, “The Travelers” hovers between the celestial and the mud-bound, as suggested by a cluster of chandeliers suspended over three candle-sprouting mounds of reddish dirt, a toilet and a claw-footed bathtub that doubles symbolically as a kind of baptismal font, in Tanya Orellana’s set design.
Though their religious order has been around since the Middle Ages, the monastery is about to be axed by the Archdiocese. The group’s leader, Brother Santo (played by Sean San José, who also restaged the show for LTC), is trying to rally his flock in the face of food shortages and utility cut-offs.
Into this unholy mess blunders Juan (Juan Amador), bearing the gushing stigmata of a violent set-to in a Sacramento bar. Is this a test from God? As the monks first feud over how to respond, then decide to adopt this confessed sinner (“booze, cocaine, Fresno motels”) into their order, Juan’s presence sets off a collective crisis of faith among the brothers.
In his review, Times theater critic Charles McNulty described the play as “a choral mediation on a period of overwhelming disruption” that “searches not for answers but for guidance on how to move with grace from disaster to disaster.” Its atmospheric staging and lyrical dialogue enhance the inward-facing, philosophical mood of “The Travelers.”
“I’m more in love with metaphor, more in love with character, less interested in story,” Alfaro said. “A great character will give you a great story. A great story doesn’t always give you a great character.”
A former altar boy raised by a Mexican Catholic father and a Chicana Pentecostal mother, Alfaro said that his latest work “is a reflection, probably more than religion, about the spiritual kind of journey I had during the pandemic.” It’s one in a series of pieces he has written about the Central Valley, which he regards as a fitting stand-in for the Golden State at large. One of Alfaro’s theatrical maestros is Luis Valdez, author of “Zoot Suit,” several of whose works delve deeply into the Valley’s backbreaking migrant-labor realities, as well as its mythic subconscious. The playwright’s son, Kinan Valdez, portrays one of the monks, who in a remarkable monologue about being birthed in the orchards expounds poetically on Highway 99‘s Mesoamerican hermaneutics.
“The Central Valley represents a kind of landscape where I think you can really examine California,” Alfaro said. “I lift the land and underneath are all these layers, and one of the layers is Aztlán, our spiritual homeland. So for me that is very deep as an idea.”
A MacArthur genius grant recipient, Alfaro remains something of an itinerant homebody, roaming widely but keeping faith with his hometown (he grew up in Pico-Union), where he now tends to his ailing mother. He regards his caretaker role as one of many devotional journeys that he has taken in recent years; he also lost a brother and nursed his hospitalized father for a year, a subject that he confronted in his 2013 solo show “St. Jude.”
“It was the greatest gift of my life, that year,” Alfaro said. “I had always loved my father and understood him, but at a distance. He was my very Mexican, traditional father – language, everything, he had a whole other way of looking at it.”
Before his father passed away, Alfaro finally revealed that he’d been abused as a child by a close family friend.
“It was like telling your best friend something that they needed to know in order for you to be able to go on,” Alfaro said. “I live with grief but I don’t live in grief now, and that’s very different. So I take care of my mother and I’m grief-stricken for her condition, but I don’t live in the grief of her condition.”
Learning to live with loss while continually adapting to altered assumptions is a challenge that Alfaro knows well as a stage artist.
“I still am in an ancient industry,” he said. “The challenge of the American theater is that, in my mind, it used to be that we were central to the civic conversation, and I don’t think that’s true now.” Instead of turning to artists and poets we turn to social media influencers, he added.
But he leans on a piece of advice that a mentor gave him years ago.
“My only job as an artist is to change. Can I change?” Alfaro asks himself, sitting in the vast marbled lobby of the downtown performance space. “Can I restart? Can I start from scratch?”
One of his monks offers a reply: “Change has come. We can’t turn back now.”
“The Travelers” runs through Oct. 15.