Dallas — After three decades of performances, the landmark Teatro Dallas continues to surprise and amaze with its willingness to experiment and expand. Its 30th-anniversary production, The Wake, written by Mexican playwright Tomás Urtusástegui and directed by Cora Cardona, corroborates the point.
The elements at work this time: a lovely mansion, a family that's holding a wake for a deceased patriarch and all of us, the invited guests. And, indeed, we are the guests and not the audience. Fourth wall? What fourth wall? There isn’t even a first, second or third. Nor are there standard seats.
Up close and intimate within the various rooms of the two-story Cedar Crest mansion, the play comes alive as the dead are paid respects by a biracial family in which, thankfully, race isn’t even an issue. While theatergoers might reasonably expect a case of "who done it," actually who is not as important as why.
Each family member renders a version of the death of Fulgencio Sánchez that is laced with implied indictments of a social system that is even more dysfunctional than this family. Various family members vie for our attention in the hopes of convincing us (and maybe themselves) of their own good intentions and the not-so-good ones of the others.
In this emotional trajectory, we physically move from living room to the kitchen, to the upstairs bedroom and back downstairs. Fulgencio's loving widow Ana Louise, brilliantly played by Phyllis Cicero, claims police brutality. As the matriarch, Cicero holds a pivotal position in which she displays an admirable emotional range.
The deceased’s cynical brother Joaquin (Armando Monsivais, sending lustful glances toward the new widow) offers a glimpse into his brother’s financial situation. The loving daughter Monica (the talented Jamila Marie) offers yet another take on her father's sudden death.
The splendid Trich Zaitoon as Doña Martha, the deceased’s elderly, demented mother, exposes more of the family’s dirty laundry, while Omar Padilla and Ernesto Moreno as the dueling brothers Ernesto and Esteban brilliantly cinch this cast of bereaved (or are they really?) family. The invited guests are requested to wear black, say a prayer and witness the private moments of this intimate family affair.
We are, after all, colleagues of the deceased.
According to the program: "The Wake addresses social commentaries faced by communities worldwide, written in Spanish and placed in Mexico City. Our adaptation reflects Dallas’ similar sociopolitical issues: aging, lack of sensitivity toward workers from corporations, gender prejudices and more."
The production also honors the 2013 death of Clinton Allen, a 25-year-old black man who was shot by a Dallas police officer. The officer was not indicted in Allen's death; officials say he was choking the officer and that his system contained the drug PCP when he was shot. Allen's family disputes the police account.
Mothers Against Police Brutality sprang up in the aftermath of the Allen shooting. A Mexican Day of the Dead altar in his honor displays memorabilia and reminds us that social justice is still an ideal—not just in distant countries, but in our own backyards.
Sara Cardona again displays her gift for translating not only the words on the page but in making the characters sound genuine and lively. Too, mastermind director Cora Cardona counts on a stellar cast of actors who, one and all, give 100 percent to their roles in a space so close that any false affect would be glaring.
The acting for this theatrical piece is analogous to that of acting for film or television—minute gestures speak volumes and a close-up of a teary face had better reflect a state of true grief. This cast convinces us that we're actually at a wake.
Kudos to the entire Teatro Dallas production team for offering a must-see, playful evening of entertainment with substance on many levels. This family is funny, witty, smart and even kind enough to offer its guests libations. Thank you, Ana Louise (Phyllis Cicero) and family for inviting us to the wake.
Note: Audience members must walk up and down stairs and stand for periods of time. This piece is not suitable for children. While there is no objectionable language, the intimate nature of the space renders any fidgeting or inadvertent noise into palpable distractions for both actors and audience. There is brief nudity.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latina/o theater in the Department of Spanish at the University of North Texas.