Latino Theater Company's 'Desert Rats' Returns to its Western Home

Monique LeBleu

Registered Critic, Writer, Editor

The Latino Theater Company is bringing back the U.S. Premiere of their noir comedy about life and crime in America's contemporary West to the Los Angeles Theatre Center (L.A.T.C.)

Written by Nate Rufus Edelman, directed by Angie Scott, and starring Derek Chariton, Lila Gavares, and Walt Gray IV, "Desert Rats," puts two brothers, a trunk, and a hostage in a motel in Barstow into the mix and stirs.

This new American play was picked out of 10 American plays featured in a reading series in London, according to Edelman. The “Ovation Recommended” Desert Rats originally world premiered in London in 2016, as part of a summer festival at Las Americas Above.

"The festival was good, but kind of rapid paced. It didn't breathe," said Edelman, who works in development and grant writing at the L.A.T.C. "The production here is now about 20 minutes longer than the London production... I really liked the London production, but I was a lot more involved in this one just because I'm home and was able to be at rehearsals from beginning to end."

The play addresses issues between the social classes, as well as issues between siblings – a subject matter close to home and in growing up for Edelman.

"There's a lot of discussions about class through this kind of kidnapping genre narrative – with the 'kind of' poor and the wealthy – to bring them together to try to find some empathy between the two, which might have been subconsciously about gentrification in North East L.A. But I think it's an interesting story to tell in Los Angeles now."

Edelman, whose brother has yet to see the play, reflected on life before gentrification in the North East L.A. area and on growing up with his twin brother, where he characterizes their relationship as more of a mild inspiration for the brothers' relationship in the play.

"[My brother and I] spent every day on earth together," said Edelman. "We shared a room for 16 years, in a small house and we were had a really dysfunctional brother relationship. And he knows how to get on my nerves, and I know how to get on his. That kind of Cain and Abel myth I think, this is my version of it. The kind of squabbling and power games and knowing how to kind of puppeteer a brother to get a reaction... That's definitely kind of there, the dysfunctional brother relationship. I wouldn't say [the relationship] is close to us, but it is an exaggeration."

Edelman, who is also part of a collective with five other playwrights called The Temblors, also teaches playwriting to under-served students in East Los Angeles as a volunteer in a weekly workshop. He grew up in Eagle Rock, went to grad school at NYU for dramatic writing and to Trinity College in Ireland.

After the deaths of friends around him from both accidents and suicides, and struggling in a New York apartment with roommates while going to school, Edelman felt "weirdly selfish" in "pursuing something like writing at a place like NYU." With the onset of both positive and negative effects of gentrification in North East L.A., returning to Los Angeles for Edelman and his friends after college was a bit of a shock and an influence.

Derek Chariton and Walt Gray IV in the Latino Theatre Company's "Desert Rats" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Photo by Giovanni Solis of bracero.

"I thought about the kind of characters – kind of maybe ne'er do well, working-class types – who don't see any opportunity or don't have opportunity in a lot of ways, and divide that with other sides of things like some of my family, and other people I knew," said Edelman.

"None of my friends live in Eagle Rock anymore. They've all been displaced through rent going up," he continued. "But I feel like a 'towny' when I go back in a way that I don't like. I have weird memories of it. I sometimes feel weirdly afraid, like PTSD, in certain parts of Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Glassell Park, even driving down certain streets, because we avoided them 20 years ago. And now they're nice. It's weird."

According to Edelman, the L.A.T.C. brings over 3,000 students to the program via that RACC in outreach to educational opportunities, which has brought some good feedback.

One student specifically came up to Edelman after a show and said that "Desert Rats" made him want to see another play. And while in the lobby of an unrelated production at ELAC, he overheard, "I saw this show downtown called Desert Rats. It was really good!"

As opposed to some honest feedback one might get from a New Yorker, Edelman said, “You don't really get that in L.A. It's such an unusual peek at real honesty."

Students have been working at the L.A.T.C. in various capacities, such as a Stage Manager, Assistant Director, Costume designer, and production assistants. This has helped create a young network at the theater that has brought younger college age and high school students into shows as well.

Frustrated with the stereotyped life and lifestyle “Hollywood” genre product that has come from some theater, Edelman seeks to bring more realism about Los Angeles life in his works.

"So rarely do we see Los Angeles stories on stage in a way that isn't stereotyped or about Hollywood. I can't think of too many plays – Sam Sheppard did a couple – but it's weirdly been kind of largely ignored, except through the lens of Hollywood, which I think there should be a moratorium."

With the show's director, Angie Scott, Edelman said they have been working together since they were undergraduates and studying abroad at different schools in Ireland. Since then, along with producing by the Latino Theatre Company, they've brought a more fleshed-out version of "Deserts Rats" to Los Angeles.

“We cast actors who we really know, like, and who happen to be perfect for these roles,” said Edelman. "Everything worked in a way it almost always doesn't. It was kind of a labor of love for everybody. All the details in performance and design were really kind of lovingly created by people who wanted to do it. I don't know if I'll ever get that again. And I'm really glad it's coming back so I'll have a little more time with it before it goes away forever."

Desert Rats” returns to the L.A.T.C. in a limited three-week run, from Saturday, January 5, to Sunday, January 20, 2018. The Los Angeles Theatre Center is located at 514 S Spring St. Los Angeles, 90013, and visit their website for more information on tickets and show times.

Monique A. LeBleu/Event Editor and Contributor.