Dallas — By now we should know that Cara Mía Theatre Company never sits still and constantly surprises with new works in a variety of spaces. This time ’round they bring us the world premiere of De Troya, a play by Obie winner Caridad Svich in a brand new cultural space, the Arts Mission Oak Cliff, a church converted into a beautiful multipurpose venue for the community. Svich, who I have known since the beginning of both of our careers (hers as a budding playwright in the late 1980s in Southern California, and mine as a Latina/o theater scholar at the University of California, Irvine), was in the house for the premiere. Lozano first directed a reading of De Troya last year for Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth.
Known for her trademark of poetic language and dream-like spaces, this former student of the prolific multi-Obie winner Maria Irene Fornés creates a complex world where city violence, decay and its rebirth are suggested by the ultimate redemption of a green forest of possibilities.
The open-platform stage is divided into two clearly opposite worlds with a gray area in-between. Theirs is a relationship born of mutual loneliness and sharing of an apocalyptic vision in which the city’s decay infringes upon their lives. On one side is the inner kitchen space of the tías, the aunts Lupe (Frida Espinosa-Müller) and Lena (Karla González), and their young, rebellious niece, Mara (Maya Malan-González). At the other side we see the couch-and-beer world of the men, Grandpa (Rodney Garza) and his young and also rebellious grandson, Gusty (Ivan Jasso).
In the middle space, that which anthropologists call liminal due to its indeterminate state betwixt and between daily reality that requires perception into the ethereal, is a river, one that whispers the longings of a river spirit named Raya (Stefanie Tovar). Only certain characters can see her. Raya may or may not be the incarnation of Mara’s disappeared mother, but she is the spirit of a young woman victim of gender violence. Her soul now wanders in that liminal space and through the songs of the river, and she beckons Mara to reinvent her world, one in which she is free from herself to become more of herself. Tovar read for the part during the Amphibian staged reading and made the role hers right from the start.
Other than this beautifully laid-out visual world, two aspects stand out about this production: the work of the actors and the soundscape. It seems with each production Cara Mía creates a space for actors to truly grow. Of course, this is generated by director Lozano’s choices and collaborative approach towards respecting the craft of the actors. Again, as in previous productions, individual talent blends into the energy of the ensemble to create an engulfing experience for the spectators. This was evident on opening night by the immediate and enthusiastic standing ovation they received.
As many years as I have now been watching Frida Espinosa-Müller play a variety of characters (and lately seems to be the go-to actor for the motherly or grandmotherly roles), this time watching her and long-time collaborator Rodney Garza (now living in Southern California) in their scenes together feels like witnessing something very intimate, charming and heartwarming between Lupe and Grandpa. Both actors embody characters way beyond their actual years and relay the kind of quiet intimate exchange between two old foes that become understandable to each other and to the audience. Their scenes are precious in a way that can only be felt in a live theatrical performance.
Karla Gonzalez as Lena acts as a hinge between Mara and her disappeared mother, between Mara and Lupe and between Mara and the spirit world of Raya. Her performance is even and steady, like her character.
Ivan Jasso, a company member, and Maya Malan-Gonzalez, a visiting actor from Chicago, thrust their youthful energy not only against the world but against themselves and each other. Theirs is an exchange of painful realities somewhat confused with the notion of love as sex—nothing unusual for the hormonal rush of their years. Yet each is looking for something more, some way out and they know it is not necessarily through each other.
Stefanie Tovar’s Raya brings forth the power of rushing water, of anger and pain and ultimately redemption in a way that is free from the limitations of realism. Tovar’s Raya becomes the centerpiece of this play and as such embodies a clear ecological message of regeneration through nature, which is intertwined with the survival of the mortals and the city they inhabit.
The second aspect that stands out is the soundscape created by Denver-based Tom Hagerman, a multi-instrumentalist in the Grammy-nominated rock band, DeVotchKa. Wow. It fits perfectly. The music moves with the river and yet stands solidly supporting the human characters.
So it goes that Cara Mía yet again surprises its Latino and non-Latino audience with its growing sense of self, one that defies immediate classification other than a penchant for daring and adventurous work, eager for new challenges. And for that, we are the richer.
Also, congratulations to the folks at Arts Mission Oak Cliff for such a stellar opening.
» Dr. Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latinx theatre in the Department of Spanish at the University of North Texas. She is also a steering committee member of the national network, the Latinx Theatre Commons.