Fast-Paced Folktales

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By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 10, 2008

Somebody somewhere has probably spent a lot of grant money trying to answer a question Marco Ramirez figured out early in his career.

"I taught middle school for a year, and I realized that kids have about an 11-minute refresh rate," says the 25-year-old playwright, a student at the Juilliard School who found his observations of preteens useful in creating "Mermaids, Monsters, and the World Painted Purple," an hour-long cycle of five plays premiering tonight at the Kennedy Center's Family Theater.

The piece draws from Latin American literature and folklore and is aimed at children 9 and older. It's a kinetic cocktail of pop culture, literary and folk influences that owes as much to Robert Rodriguez's "Spy Kids" movies and the Street Fighter video game as it does to the magical realism of authors Gabriel García Márquez and Junot Díaz. The plays are primarily in English, though Spanish phrases abound, particularly when the characters (most of whom are bilingual) are expressing emotion or are under stress, or are simply adding humor or emphasis to their speech.

Ramirez also added his own requirements: Don't bore the audience, which would be bad, or condescend to them, which would be even worse. "Kids are a lot smarter now than maybe they were 10 or 15 years ago," he says. "They're surrounded by more fiction, and fiction that is aware of the fact that they're cynical."

Ramirez, a two-time winner of the American College Theatre Festival's Latino Playwriting Award, is a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Cuba in the 1960s. He credits his "very talkative" grandparents with sparking his interest in storytelling. Literary fiction didn't come until later -- nor did theater. "It was always a little too expensive, unfortunately," he says. "I was raised mostly on 'Swamp Thing' comics and on the 'Batman' animated series."

In what must be one of the more literal cases on record of an artist absorbing his influences, Ramirez's "I Am Not Batman" won best 10-minute play at the 2006 Humana Festival of New American Plays. A fantasy for an actor and a drummer, it's one of the five in the new show.

"Mermaids" director Gregg Henry helped Ramirez develop "Batman" in a 2005 Kennedy Center workshop and urged its reprisal because he thought it fit the theme of the other four plays: kids taking action. The stories include that of a resourceful girl who has to take care of a little monster problem in the subway and a boy whose grandfather is going blind one color at a time. The old man can still see purple, so his grandson sets about rendering the world visible to him again.

While some adults in the audience might find themselves charmed by the literary touchstones, Henry says kids are more likely to pick up on the visual references, such as when the cast faithfully re-creates martial arts melees straight out of Street Fighter.

"What's been funny in rehearsal is when we'll have very serious theater artists gathered around a laptop looking at video game replays," he says with a chuckle. "All the secret game players come out of the closet."

Mermaids, Monsters, and the World Painted Purple Kennedy Center Family Theater, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. Through Oct. 26. $18.

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