Dallas — An exquisite acoustic guitar twangs a sultry, intriguing melody, joined by a throaty singer and a third man sliding his hands rhythmically across the worn wooden cajon. At a table in the middle of the stage, a big, dark-haired man raises his head, swills a stiff drink, and collapses face down as the singer continues his languorous song.
The drunken man is Luis Buñuel (Antonio Arrebola), the famed surrealist filmmaker, and he is soon joined by his pals, poet Federico García Lorca (handsome Ivan Jasso, who actually looks like the young Lorca) and painter Salvador Dalí (a mischievous Christopher Sykes) who haul him upright. “We must keep you from getting shit-faced, so you can remember important things,” Dalí tells his friend. Then they all laugh and stomp their heels and thrust their hips through the night in a joyful orgy of youth, virility and the driving rhythm of the music.
Playwright and director Matthew Posey once more infuses famed artists from the past with fresh blood and vibrant music to propel their bodies back into the heated dance of life. In Buñuel Descending, he conjures a hard-drinking meeting between the actual leaders of the Spanish avant-garde in a narrow flamenco café in Paris in the 30s. Like Perro y Sangre and El Conde Dracula, the work is another fascinating collaboration of Ochre House Theater and the Dallas Flamenco Festival. Sung in Spanish and written with some Spanish dialogue, the play feels gritty and real from the first strum of the guitar.
Buñuel, a brilliant filmmaker with an international career making films in Paris, Hollywood and Mexico, is here a man fighting to come to terms with his own memories, the chaos of a Civil War in Spain, and the possibility of his friends and wife Jeanne (Delilah Muse) returning to Spain without him to “fight the Fascists.” He’s haunted by nightmares, in the form of red-hooded lumbering men with twigs for horns who warn him, “Do not let time slip away.”
Ochre House resident prop genius Justin Locklear contributes scary-funny puppets to Buñuel’s drunken hallucinations. A tiny, bird-like puppet appears to scold him when he’s not working; and when he’s struggling with evil itself, a huge white worm-like puppet with an enormous red mask carried by two men wraps itself around him a terrifying moment of despair.
The dialogue has some raw edges, but the play brings insight into the creative process of the Surrealist movement, and provides a powerful context to the brilliant dancers and extraordinary cante singer. They fluidly combine the grace, strength and sensuality of flamenco dancing, and the gypsy-style passion of the cante songs to carry the narrative and deliver the heart of Buñuel’s struggle on a hollow stage vibrating to the drum of heels.
Arrebola, together with Muse, choreographed the show, and his Buñuel is a good man pulled in many directions by outsized artistic and physical appetites. His sweet, boyish face and solid, manly body lend his performance a kind of worldly innocence, if that’s possible. His acclaimed flamenco dancing is rugged, forceful and passionate, particularly in his face-to-face confrontation with the amazing cantaor Jose Cortes Fernandez, whose wailing, insistent voice lingers over every scene. Arrebola knows all the moves, his sturdy frame building to a deliberate tremor as he pushes himself relentlessly in response to the singer’s incantations. They both leave it all on the stage in a pool of sweat and emotion, Arrebola breathing hard and acknowledging with a brief pause the shouts and applause of the audience.
Delilah Muse is truly a force of nature, and her Jeanne is a glowing feminine presence to be reckoned with in this male-dominated play. Small and exquisitely proportioned, her limber spine and precise fingers seem made for the expressiveness and sensuality of flamenco. At one point she says, “I have a surprise for you,” and all the men are mesmerized, along with the audience, when she produces her silver castanets, takes off her shoes, and displays her masterful and abandoned style of dancing. Brava!
The musicians created the original score from traditional cante and folk music. Seated stage right, they are always on the scene, and enter into the action as called upon. Guitarist Calvin Hazen is the musical center of the play, his critically acclaimed flamenco style establishing the lyrical line of the show. Percussionist Bobby Fajardo rises to accompany Muse in her barefoot solo, becoming part of her nuanced performance.
Ninety minutes after we walk into this Paris Café on the fringe of Deep Ellum, we leave with hearts beating faster, hands numb from clapping, and another Ochre House night under our belts and in our hearts. Don’t miss this unique and delightfully improbable experience.