By Robert St. Martin
Hollywood, California (The Hollywood Times) 06/04/2023
A full-house at the Chinese TCL-6 Theatre in Hollywood was in attendance for the premiere of José Luis Valenzuela’s film “Moe” (USA, 2023), a surreal dramatic comedy about an AIDS-stricken stage director planning his own farewell party. Valenzuela launched his film at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF) on Saturday 3th – finally after 17 years bringing to film what was originally a brilliantly-conceived stage play written by Evelina Fernandez for the resident Latino theatre company of the Los Angeles Center Theatre. Fernandez adapted for the screen “Moe” from her GLAAD Award-winning play “Dementia” – which originally was staged in 2002 and reprised in 2010. Moises (played by Sal Lopez) – his friends call him Moe – is throwing a going away party because he’s dying of AIDS. He’s a theater artist and working on his final act as a drag performer.
The subject of the play by Evelina Fernández was so timely when it was first produced by the Los Angeles Theatre Center under the able direction of José Luis Valenzuela. Many of us saw the play on stage back then and recall Sal Lopez in the original stage version and here he returns to take on the same role in the film adaptation. Given the current politicization of drag performance in this country, the new film version of Fernández’s play touches many hot-button issues. What makes both the original play and this film adaptation work is the underlying truths it reveals about the lies that we tell ourselves about who we really are and the actions that determine our lives. This is especially hard-hitting for the characters in the story who are products of Mexican-American culture in East L.A. where homosexuality has long been a taboo subject. The impact of AIDS on the Latino community only served to amplify the issues.
Here is the trailer:
The character of Moises or “Moe” is fascinating to see on screen, as played by Sal Lopez, an accomplished actor who is not gay himself but grew into the role that he embodies with his lean physique and formidable stage presence. Moe’s dementia from terminal AIDS makes him drift in and out of consciousness and his lucidity is mixed with surreal flash-backs to his one-woman shows as a drag artist. Moe, drifting in and out of the dementia that accompanies his illness, also has conversations with his alter ego, the glamorous torch-singing drag queen Lupe (played by Richard Coca), the fabulous one that is the center of Moe’s fantasies. It is Lupe’s surreal presence that haunts him to the end, appearing on the stage in his mind to sing the songs written into the original play.
“It’s all about the exit, you know.” To the end, Moe is determined to provide a grand “exit” from life, being well aware that the terminal phase of AIDS provides no “exit.” Always in performance mode, Moe wants to bring those nearest and dearest to him to his side for his “Going Away For Good” party. He invites his writing partner (Danny De La Paz) and his partner’s wife (Dyana Ortelli), his best friend Eddie (a successful Latino hair stylist), his niece Tamara (pregnant with child), and even Moe’s ex-wife Raquel (Evelina Fernandez). The film returns fellow Latino Theater Company members Geoffrey Rivas (as Eddie), Lucy Rodriquez (as Moe’s mother), and Evelina Fernandez herself to their original roles. Also appearing in the film version are Tonantzin Esparza, Pepe Serna, Richard Coca, and Renée Victor.
Moe decides to take one more trip to Santa Barbara before the end and that proves to be a surreal experience based on past memories of a brief romance with a Latino young man Elias who figures in the equation. In the final scene of the play/film, we discover why Moe got married in the first place and the confrontation with his ex-wife uncovers the “truth” beneath the “lies” that most of the characters in the play have been telling themselves for years. There are more than skeletons that come out of the closet at this particular get-together. Long-hidden and shocking secrets are revealed as Moe imagines himself on stage for a final performance to an applauding audience.
Having seen Fernández’s play “Dementia” on stage at its inception, it is interesting to note some of the similarities to her “Luminarias” (1999), which garnered much critical attention as the Latina “Sex In the City.” Playwright Evelina Fernandez is a Humanitas finalist and scripted the Latino Theater Company’s famed annual Christmas pageant, “La Virgen De Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin,” as well as the recent acclaimed hit “Solitude,” an L.A. Times Critic’s Choice. Several of her other plays also transitioned to film including “Luminarias,” and “Premeditation.” Also an actor, she has had recurring roles on several TV series, including “Roseanne,” “Judging Amy,” and “City of Angels.”
Director José Luis Valenzuela is the Artistic Director of the Latino Theater Company and a Professor at UCLA’s MFA Directing program. His amazingly prolific career includes credits both in Europe (“Peer Gynt,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) and the U.S. (the stage and screen versions of “Luminarias” and “How Else Am I Supposed to Know I’m Still Alive?”; collaborations with Culture Clash including “Carpa Clash,” “Radio Mambo,” “A Bowl of Beings,” the last of which was also filmed for PBS’ Great Performances; “Melancholia,” “Bandido!,” “Hijos,” “Solitude,” “August 29th,” “La Victima,” “Roosters,” “The Promise,” and so much more).