Review: MIDDLE OF THE WORLD at Rogue Machine

superbly directed with an enthralling lead performance, this romantic and political drama runs through March 4

By: Feb. 21, 2024
Review: MIDDLE OF THE WORLD at Rogue Machine
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Middle of the World is the West Coast premiere of an intriguing new play by Juan José Alfonso, at Rogue Machine on Melrose. Superbly directed with an enthralling lead performance, this romantic and political drama runs through March 4.

Review: MIDDLE OF THE WORLD at Rogue Machine
Christian Telesmar and Cheryl Umaña

At its heart, Middle of the World is something of an unexpected love story between a fallen socialist leader from Ecuador and a young, driven Black finance executive. Middle of the World feels like an elegy, evoking the bittersweet, numbing ache of loss and betrayal. It invokes a sense of loss of an identity, a family, a country.

Middle of the World benefits from superb direction by Guillermo Cienfuegos.  I still have fresh in my mind Cienfuegos’ electrifying work directing Heroes of the Fourth Turning with its live wire intensity.  His sensitivity as an actor himself helps bring out the marrow of every performance.  Performances in Middle of the World are captivating.

Review: MIDDLE OF THE WORLD at Rogue Machine
Cheryl Umaña and Leandro Cano

As lead Victoria, actress Cheryl Umaña is enthralling.  Equal parts vivacious charm and battle ax, cheeky, smart, arrogant, humble, sexy, vulnerable and tender even while ferocious — this is a gorgeous performance.  You can’t help but fall in love with her character, a former president from Ecuador, in exile in New York City, working as an Uber driver.  In fact, Victoria’s character may be so enthralling that it makes the rest of the play feel a bit like a coat hanger for her.  Nothing else has the silken depth and lushness of its mesmerizing lead.  Other than Victoria, I adored actor Leandro Cano's brilliant performance as Bob Gonzalez, American State Department ruffian.  His affable menace, folksy Texan wisdom and wry, pitch-perfect humor and good-natured evil is genius.

Review: MIDDLE OF THE WORLD at Rogue Machine
Jennifer Pollono and Leandro Cano

Playwright Juan José Alfonso is an impressively accomplished media executive.  Middle of the World can feel quite cinematic, with extensive cuts, dissolves, and flashbacks.  I am still not completely certain whether I like the cinematic feel on stage.  The play moves swiftly and has terrific pacing, with never a lagging moment. The downside of the romantic thriller mood is that it may set us up to expect more surprises and twists and turns than are delivered.  Middle of the World spends its shocking twist (of Uber driver Victoria being a former president) in the first scene.  As this is theatre in Los Angeles in 2024, it is unlikely that we are going to see the enraptured yuppie heroes welcome that Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen got in Wall Street in the 1980s.  It does not surprise us that our Wall Street lead Glenn Joyner starts to see the shallowness of his slick capitalist ways.  Likewise, in this kind of story about a populist, socialist South American regime, it seems inevitable that the American intervention will turn out to be of the imperialist, villainous flavor.  The only truly startling thing is Victoria’s lack of conflict about her responsibility for the torture and murder of an environmental activist, even though her actions were under extreme duress.  At the end of the play, it felt like I was left waiting for a bit more of a big juicy revelation. 

Review: MIDDLE OF THE WORLD at Rogue Machine
Dan Lin and Christian Telesmar

Superb actor Christian Telesmar brings a lot of depth and juice to finance executive Glenn, who could still use more fleshing out in the writing.  Perhaps, never having witnessed his discontent with his dazzlingly successful, overpriced espresso lifestyle before meeting Victoria, it is hard to understand the mechanics of his implosion.  It feels unclear if we should be cheering his slow, painful self-sabotage.  Watching him lose everything he has worked so far hard for, and having Victoria disappear on him as well, feels like a punishment.  I ended up feeling unexpectedly quite sympathetic to Glenn’s sidelined Wall Street partner Warren Lim (with a richly layered and scene-stealing performance from actor Dan Lin).  Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to witness Glenn's chemistry and repartee with Victoria, his slow revealing and unraveling of self.  Christian Telesmar’s raw vulnerability in their romance is deeply affecting.  

As always, Rogue Machine consistently does some of the most exquisitely produced and exciting new work in Los Angeles.  

Photos by Jeff Lorch

Middle of the World is performed at Rogue Machine in the Matrix Theatre through March 4th.  Rogue Machine is located at 7657 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046.  Tickets are available by calling 855-585-5185 or by clicking below: