By Bill Garry
When I first heard about Underneath the Freeways of Los Angeles, an interactive murder-mystery at the Echo Theatre Company, I imagined one of those frothy entertainments that pop up at dinner theatres: colorful red herrings, chummy actors, and a commitment to fun over intellect.
This is not one of those. Playwright Matthew Paul Olmos has crafted a tightly written, intelligently acted, political drama that grabs the audience ("volunteer detectives") and thrusts them into a world of activism, ambition, and racism.
Amy K. Harmon, Roland Ruiz, Darrett Sanders Mia Ando, Gloria Ines, Morgan Danielle Day in 'Underneath the Freeways of Los Angeles'
Photo courtesy of The Echo Theater Company
The play is performed via Zoom. The volunteers, split up into Zoom rooms, interrogate five cast members ("suspects") portraying community members who may have killed a young couple at East L.A.'s Hollenbeck Park, newly bisected (it's 1960) by the 5.
The commitment shown by cast members is astounding. I used "Detective Bill" as my Zoom screen name and got my head handed to me by cast member ("suspect") Roland Ruiz. Portraying a young Chicano named Efron, he attacked my questions and my cop personna with bravado, mistrust, and a small amount of resignation. Director Michael Alvarez prepared him well; Efron took whatever openings I gave him to further the plot and reinforce the message that this community deserves better than to be raped by a highway that doesn't serve it.
Roland Ruiz is the drifter, Efren, a "Person of Interest"
Photo courtesy of The Echo Theater CompanyMr. Ruiz stands out, but all the suspects were fully-formed, complex characters: the airhead artist who likes to paint in the quiet overnight hours, the community activist who doesn't live in the community, the immigrant mother shielding her son from the barrio, the corporate fixer who knows better than anyone else. Mia Ando, Morgan Danielle Day, Amy K. Harmon, Gloria Ines, Darrett Sanders and Mr. Ruiz don't appear in any scenes together, but conspire to keep the audience guessing and thinking. The climax of the show is both surprising and gripping.
Production stage manager Shelby Smotherman deserves kudos for managing the Zoom machinations (muting, breakout rooming, etc.) so that they are smooth and unobtrusive.
The built environment matters. Underneath the Freeways of Los Angeles puts us right in the middle of the decisions that affect the life and breath of our cities. With infrastructure and institutional racism back in the national conversation, we all have to become volunteer detectives and make sure the truth comes out and stays out.