From Puerto Rico To Berkeley Rep, Rita Moreno Stars In Her Own Life

After lightening her complexion and bleaching her hair to replicate Hollywood's sex symbols and after bronzing her face to play generic Hispanics, Rita Moreno, after more than 70 years in show business, is exposing her "life without makeup."

There aren't many octogenarians who can command the room and charm the hell out of it with stories, songs, dance and four or five costume changes six nights a week.

Life Without Makeup, which just had its world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, is the kind of play that very few stars could pull off. It is self-celebratory but not self-congratulatory.

Written by Tony Taccone, the theater's artistic director, and based on many hours of interviews with the actress, the play is more than a tribute to a living legend. It's an immigrant's story, a story of Making It in America, and Making It in Hollywood -- and also not quite making it.

It's also a mambo down memory lane with a playlist from a bygone era. And although there are gaps where there should be details and details where there should be gaps, Moreno is so personable, it's a treat just to hear her gab and dish and to sit in awe of her energy and elegance.

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In the play, Moreno (nee Rosita Dolores Alverio) recalls the stormy sea voyage from Puerto Rico to New York with her mother when she was five. She describes the apartment they shared with three other families, the star-filled sky that she gazed upon from her cherished fire-escape. (Stars above the Bronx? Some of this is clearly embellished.)

Moreno tells of sweatshops, dance classes and the fruit-decorated hat her mother made for her performances, at age 9, as a miniature version of Carmen Miranda. With her easy-going, playful discourse, Moreno recounts how she longed to trade up -- from mini-Miranda to a Betty Grable or a Lana Turner. Eventually she was signed to MGM, after Louis B. Mayer envisioned her as "a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor."

Nonetheless, Moreno kept getting cast in film roles she considered degrading. She played a mute runaway Indian slave, a Polynesian in a sarong, an Arab in a turban... For these, she perfected what she calls the "Universal Ethnic Accent."

Throughout Moreno's narrative of hopes raised and dashed, big breaks, bouts of depression and bad breakups (starring Marlon Brando), Life Without Makeup is illustrated with archival photographs and film clips. We see Elizabeth "the human hourglass" Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and other sirens of the Hollywood studio system. In film clips, we also see Moreno playing various bit parts as the studio's "resident utility ethnic." Even after her heralded success in West Side Story, she was offered mostly roles as gangland girlfriends, mothers of gang members, or whorehouse madams.

Even though she has won all the major entertainment awards (she's one of only ten performers with an EGOT -- an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) Moreno describes how her career trajectory sputtered forward in a Hollywood (and a country) permeated with racism and sexism. She blends humor with frustration, caustic resignation with genuine sadness. She also explains how her Puerto Rican heritage provided her with the survival skills necessary to push on.

She details the comically overwrought nature of the Puerto Rican character, exclaiming, cursing, worrying and overreacting in high-strung Spanish. She humorously mimics her mother's seductions, schemes, plans and dreams for success in America.

Moreno mingles the personal and confessional with show biz and slapstick. Bookended by hunky Latin dancers, (Ray Garcia, and Salvatore Vassallo), she sings and dances to several numbers including "Broadway Melody," "Everything's Coming Up Roses (a comic rendition as her character Googie Gomez, her Tony winning role in The Ritz,) and "America", the number that her audience is most eagerly awaiting.

On opening night, Moreno took a long gulp of water after one dance and used the occasion to coax even more applause out of her audience. At eighty, following a recent knee-replacement surgery that came on the heels of her husband's death, Moreno is still working hard and is very comfortable in her own body.

"People say that when you get to a certain age you start to mellow. I have no idea what these people are talking about," Moreno says at the close of the show. "Mellowing has never done much for me... You need to keep moving... I figure if I keep my spirit in shape, the bones will take care of themselves."

Life Without Makeup runs through October 30, 2011 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.

All photos: Kevin Berne.

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