review: dia de los muertos

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Dia de los Muertos

By Anthny P. Pennino, translated by Javier E. Gomez
Directed by Alberto Bonilla
Featuring Elizabath Inghram, Alberto Bonilla, Alexander Stine
Teatro LATEA, 107 Suffolk Street, New York, NY

July 13, 2011 — July 31, 2011
production web site:  http://teatrolatea.com/ and http://corecreativeproductions.com/

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
July 13, 2011

Parallels between Mexican and Irish independence movements, gun play and humor, mysteries and spiritualism, and cinematic traditions of American westerns inform Dia de los Muertos, the current offering of Theatro LATEA and Core Creative Productions. As the director notes in an essay included in the production playbill “We are all haunted by something.”  This production is haunted by a number of resonant ideas and is hampered by a number of directorial choices as well as ambient sound challenged by necessary yet white-noise creating house fans that absorb significant portions of dialogue.  And with all this, there are moments of possibilities.

In a Mexican border town in the early years of the 20th century we meet ruffians who frequent a bar/boarding house, the women who love the rough talking and rough playing men, a doctor Pablo (Alberto Bonilla) who cares for the town’s inhabitants, two Irish siblings Devlyn (Elizabeth Ingrhram) and Callum (Robert Wesley Brown) who arrive with secrets and charm, some individuals that may come from history such as painter Diego (Javier E. Gomez) (is this character intended to suggest Diego Rivera?), and an American ex-pat character named Ambrose (playbill does not clearly identify actors in all cases) that may be based on American Ambrose Bierce who died in 1913 but his satirical mysterious writing spirit could have inspired this character.  Quipster Brodie (Alexander Stine) has most of the funny lines providing Texan humor.  (For example, about a poser character: “He’s all hat and no cattle.”)  There is a search for ancestors’ graves, gun and knife fights, sexual attraction between Devlyn and Pablo and among other characters.  Early scenes in the border town bar evoke silent western movies with guns a blazing, items a-flying, patrons hunkered down behind the bar, and rising and falling in unison to view the action and ducking to avoid being hit by flying debris.  Almost cartoonish action such as this segues quickly into serious examinations of social ideas through cultural revolutions and perhaps espionage and the several-times-told description of a similarity between a Mexican tradition “dia de los muertos” and an Irish tradition that also honors the spirits of dead ancestors.  The world of this play is populated in addition by mute human spirits in various masks depict characters we never meet in their human form, a Mexican spiritualist witch-like character, and some characters we grow to know are killed on the stage only to rise be-masked to haunt the actors on stage in various ways.

The performance I attended felt like a dry run of various ideas that have not quite come together.  Too much action in the cavernous Teatro LaTea performance space is far upstage in demarcated acting areas — upstate right is back home in Ireland for the two siblings, upstage center is the borderland meeting area/bar room, upstage left is wilderness, and downstage is all too infrequently used as a cemetery/burial place characters visit.  The musing mystical aura the production may be striving for may emerge with more ease from a more flexibly orchestrated performance space.  Settings can blend, the audience will go with you.  Bring the sound and the sights and the language downstage where we can see and hear it.  I love hearing characters speak in English and Spanish.  I love the idea of mashing the stories of cultural independence in this particular way.  And there are many strong performances among the many characters included — 12 actors portray at least 20 characters.

A lovely theatrical sequence happens at the end of the play (and I won’t give it away to allow the moment to be realized by each audience anew), that creatively uses the spatial and atmospheric and tonal qualities of the space.  A through line of moments and sequences just like that one could enhance the storytelling of this entire production.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 16, 2011)

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