Inspired by true historical events which occurred in 1960 in East Los Angeles, UNDERNEATH THE FREEWAYS OF LOS ANGELES draws the audience in by encouraging audience members to participate in a real murder history – as if they were really there – by using the interactive Zoom platform in a new and refreshing way. Commissioned by the Echo Theater Company and written by Matthew Paul Olmas, UNDERNEATH THE FREEWAYS OF LOS ANGELES integrates history and live theater in a highly creative way. The idea behind the show is imaginative and, in its own way, unique.
The play uncovers two distinct and different slices of the past which coincidentally occurred at exactly the same moment in time. First, we have the huge freeway development projects going on in LA addressing the immense popularity of the motor car – and the traffic that quickly grew beyond anyone’s dreams. Something had to be done to keep the cars moving while retaining some of the tropical residential suburbia essential to the city. And developing a complex freeway system was the answer. Of course, it just so happened that most of the freeways – which literally steamrolled over people’s homes and neighborhoods – also happened to affect those areas which were primarily in working-class enclaves. Notice that there is no Beverly Hills Freeway (although, to be honest, the idea was once considered but quickly discarded).
The second element to the tale was a real-life murder mystery. Just under the newly constructed Golden State Freeway overpass in East Los Angeles lay the lake at Hollenbeck Park. And in that lake were discovered the bodies of a young man and woman. Very clearly, the two were murdered. At the time, there were five “persons of interest;” and this is the story of finding out who done the deed. In essence, homicide has become a high stakes murder game. Better yet, the audience will get to investigate the events, interview the suspects, and maybe even catch the killer.
UNDERNEATH THE FREEWAYS OF LOS ANGELES is a great idea. Director Michael Alvarez does a skillful job of directing his cast, who must rise to the occasion with scripted and unscripted comments as they appear before the audience in interactive mode. The actors do a creditable job of shedding their own skins to assume the roles of long-dead possible killers. This includes Boyle Heights resident and artist Dee Dee Echevarria (Gloria Ines); Japanese-American local resident Mrs. Kay Shimo (Mia Ando), protest organizer Lucretia Jacobs (Morgan Danielle Day); drifter Efren (Roland Ruiz), and California Division of Highways administrator James Rouser (Darrett Sanders). Some interesting and relevant photos contribute to the overall veracity of the production.
Now we come to some glitches which surfaced as the show progressed. Unfortunately, our current streaming technology might not be quite up to the task of true interactivity. It appeared that several attendees (myself included) were either invisible (video issues) and/or silent (audio issues). Not being able to participate in an interactive show definitely strains one’s ability to attend and concentrate. Additionally, the production couldn’t seem to decide whether it was a historical drama or a whodunit. Thus, the questioning wandered as the audience also did not know where to focus – history or murder. It was easy to lose track of what was going on. Motivations were also blurry to pretty much nonexistent – a problem in the puzzling resolution. The Echo Theater Company gets high grades for the idea – but lower grades for the execution.
UNDERNEATH THE FREEEWAYS OF LOS ANGELES runs from April 2 to April 26, 2021 with performances on Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays (7:30 p.m. PST/10:30 p.m. EST), and Sundays (4 p.m. PST/7 p.m. EST). Tickets range from $15 to $25. Reservations are available online.