Dancing into LA’s Past with Señor Plummer

What was LA before the Dodgers? Before the film industry? Before the orange groves?

For several thousand years, it was an array of Tongva villages — Apachianga, Cahuenga, Nacaugna, and more. When the Spanish arrived, they gave it the collective name El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de los Angeles, de Porciuncula — “The City of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, of the Little Portion.” (“Our Lady” being Mary the mother of Jesus, and “Little Portion” being a Franciscan chapel in Italy.)

Until 1849,  “Los Angeles” was a small, quiet community of natives, scattered rancheros, and in-town tradespeople. They referred to themselves as Californios, an isolated, comfortable people. Then came gold — and  fortune hunters from around the world — and Americans.

Ensemble and audience dancing in the courtyard (photo: Chelsea Sutton)

At that moment, Eugenio Plummer was born. His half-Mexican, half-Irish mother had inherited a large piece of the pueblo, and he grew up to be a proud ranchero. Famous for lusty tall tales, he defended his fellow Californios as the Americans set up their courts and took away their land.

Señor Plummer’s Final Fiesta takes place near the end of Don Eugenio’s life, in the early 1940s, when the 90-year-old Don’s tales and reminiscences are gathered into a book. We are guests at the publication party, as the proud editor presents a slide show.

But then Californio magic begins to work. Don Eugenio (a lifesize puppet brought to life by four masked artists) arises from his deathbed and takes the stage. His family members (live actors) appear, inviting us to choose one of them as our guide, and before we know it we’re whirled into the past, which awaits in the interior of the hacienda. (Miraculously, it still stands, in the middle of West Hollywood’s Plummer Park.)

For the next hour and a half, we plunge into one room after another; each is the site of another of Don Eugenio’s picaresque adventures. Most are light, a bit satiric, perhaps a bit ribald, though the era’s violence is always near at hand. In some rooms, darkness gathers into fearful myths, or the kind of shameful memories a community likes to forget — but cannot.

It all culminates in a fiesta in the courtyard, thrown by Don Eugenio and his mother to celebrate a temporary victory over a land shark, and America’s 100th birthday. It also marks a moment when the many peoples crowding into Los Angeles are able to live in harmony. Dancing and singing with them, we, too, yearn for a city of harmony.

Final Fiesta isn’t stopwatch-precise. Events feel almost impromptu, in the easygoing style of these Californios. In their company, we sense the life out of which LA grew, not just history’s dry names and dates. But then, Don Eugenio always loved a lively tale — and some tongue-in-cheek humor — more than mere facts.

As always with Rogue Artists, we’re surrounded by playful invention. We meet puppets and masks of all kinds and sizes (thanks to Jack Pullman, Morgan Rebane, Mark Royston, and Brian White). Matt Hill and his scenic team create fantasy locales from cave to courtroom, and Elena Flore’s costumes include an evocation of a 19th-century hoop skirt that’s (literally) a sheer delight. This is an immersive experience you’ll want to enter again, to see what you missed.

It’s been 75 years now since Don Eugenio walked the land. He and the Californios may be gone. But let Final Fiesta works its gentle magic on you, and early LA’s way of loving life will not end.
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Señor Plummer’s Final Fiesta, by Diana Burbano, Tom Jacobson, Chelsea Sutton, and the ensemble; directed by Sean T. Cawelti and Julia Garcia Combs..
Presented by Rogue Artists Ensemble, at the Theater in Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood 90069.

Thursday through Sundays at 7:30,
until Nov. 18.

Tickets: <www.rogueartists.org>