Dallas — Undermain Theatre is currently celebrating its 34th season and one of its founding directors, Katherine Owens, opened its season directing the world premiere of so go the ghosts of méxico, part two by Matthew Paul Olmos. In her usually warm and exuberant manner, she welcomed the audience on opening night with this statement: ‘’Dallas has the will and the intelligence to deal with important and timely issues like the ones Matthew addresses in this play, so relevant in today’s political climate.’’
The issue is the U.S./Mexico border drug wars. In this play the border plays out as, not only a locus of inter-narco violence, but a place where the demands of los Estados Unidos del Norte are to be satisfied not only with product, but through media recognition.
Characteristic of the Undermain is choosing works that experiment thematically and formally, Olmos’ piece offers an intimate view into a wanna-be head honcho in the narco world. The narcissism that comes with the illusion of absolute power drives the action and motivates the central Azul (Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso) into ever more violent exchanges with his competitor Narco Otro (Gigi Cervantes), La Burra (Barbie Bernier), and eventually with his own El Jefe (Gloria Vivica Benavides), and protégé El Chango (Mindamora Rocha).
"His” is not a typo. All of the male characters are played by women. In an earlier interview Olmos stated that he wanted to explore the machista world of narco tráfico by gender-bending the roles. Since violence is not a gender-coded phenomenon, having women play the roles of narcos as men is not off-putting. More on this later.
For those who saw so go the ghosts of méxico, part one last year and were expecting part two to offer some sort of follow up to Mari’s (played by Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso) immigration into the U.S. are in for a big surprise. Part two is not a sequel in any sense of the word. Rather, it is another aspect of this artist’s ongoing meditation on U.S.-Mexico drug wars.
There are, however, a few points of reference in common with part one. For instance, the intermingling of the dead and the living continues. The living specters continue to influence the actions of the living human beings, even after having just departed. The transitions from life to death are brilliantly crafted both in the script and through the set design. The relationship between the body alive and the dead one could not be clearer. The role of music increases in part two, as the characters sing and rap to the original score by Marios Aristopoulos, a London-based composer, with lyrics by Olmos. Bruce DuBose adds ambient soundscapes rounding out the enclosed yet expansive feeling of this piece. Barbie Bernier’s singing voice as La Burra, as well as Gigi Cervantes’ as Narco Otro are haunting, on key and evocative. At the end of the second act, the reminiscence of “that” melody, the one that echoed in La Burra took me to a couple of unexpected musical memories: somewhere between Edith Piaf and the score of the Titanic, in a mix of sadness and longing. The hard down-beat of the rapping fell to the younger narcos, Azul and El Chango, which hammer out the lyrics with due anger and venom. During the after show reception Bruce DuBose toasted the tech team, mentioning the numerous (did he say 125?) different cues.
One new aspect that shines through in part two is the role of the media (online news articles, tortures streamed online) in the narcissism of the narco traffickers. After all, many have short-lived lives, like the proverbial candle in the wind. Azul’s need to be known and “respected” by name in the América (the reference to the U.S.) eventually drives El Chango into unanticipated gore (described but not seen). Which brings to the foreground, that, while thematically this play centers on the necessary violence related to border drug wars between sparring opposites, we are visually spared of details.
John Arnone’s scenic design in the round, Steve Woods’ lighting, and Danielle Georgiou’s choreography go hand-in-hand, beautifully moving both characters and the audience through emotional and geographic landscapes marked by four moving screens on casters that serve multi-functionally and symbolically as border fences, arches, underground pathways and the proverbial threshold in the most archetypical of terms. Amanda Capshaw’s no frills costume design brings out the masculine in the women, and Linda Noland offers some interesting properties design elements, including the very odd pink, red and gold handguns. The circularity of the play and the fate of the characters are foreshadowed on the painted stage floor.
If you are looking for a play with a traditional dramatic arc of tension-driven dialogue with a clear psychological conflict at the center, this play is not for you. Rather, if you let yourself drift along with its dream-like flow, mostly driven by the voice of Bernier’s La Burra, and by the musical and choreographic movements, this play will carry you on an unusual ride. It took the better part of act one for me to get into the flow, which was interrupted by an intermission. While looking at the usually long lines in the women’s restroom confirmed the physical need for a break, emotionally for me intermission broke the magic spell, which I eventually regained in the shorter second act.
While the conflicts socially, economically and politically are larger than life and death, there are moments of deep intimate pathos. The most surprising and poignant metamorphosis takes place through Rocha’s El Chango between the first and second acts. His monologue in the second act brings frailty and horror to an otherwise pale character. This is widest dramatic range in the play.
The judgement is still out with regards to the portrayal of these narco male bosses by women actors. While gender-bending roles can propose unusual angles on characters, I kept wondering why not have narco women boss characters, even if they just exist mostly in fiction? Is the representation of the machista narco culture somehow mitigated by having women play these roles? How? These are dramaturgical questions.
The emotional grit that it takes to convey the reality of living in this kind of deeply violent and dark world is one that cannot easily be performed despite cleanly delivered lines, or authentic gestural macho posturing, no matter how well imitable. This cast gives their all, as well as something for us to think about.