Dallas — Teatro Dallas presents An Evening with Two Giants, stories by Juan Rulfo and Alfredo Cardona Peña, as part of its yearly Days of the Dead commemoration. Celebrating the dead is an integral part of a 3,000-year-old cultural history of Aztec Mexico, which has spread to the United States and other parts of the world where there is a significant Mexican population. While originally it was celebrated in summer, it is now fixed on Nov. 1 and 2, which syncretizes it with the Catholic calendar of All Saints and All Souls Day. Celebrating the dead equals remembering and honoring their life.
While this is a worldwide practice in cultures that venerate the ancestors, “It is difficult to find plays that are suitable for the Days of Dead and over the years we have done all of them from both Hispanic and other traditions,” said TD artistic director Cora Cardona on opening night.
Two features that stand out in this year’s production are the well-conceived adaptations and the design palette.
This year Teatro Dallas commissioned adaptations of two original Spanish-language stories by famed Latin American storytellers Juan Rulfo (Mexico) and Alfredo Cardona Peña (Costa Rica/Mexico) from Anyika McMillan-Herod, who co-founded Soul Rep Theatre Company and was a participant in Dallas Theater Center’s second Dallas Playwrights Workshop headed by Will Power. The set is designed by long-time contributor Nick Brethauer, who continues to transform the TD shoe box space into a wealth of economic yet efficient spaces. The overall feel of the scenice design hails to the 1950s, with costuming by Michael Robinson befitting that decade in a color palette in black and grays. While the black costuming of the chorus of rural religious women in the first story, “Anacleto Morones,” is culturally congruent and an obvious choice, the second story, “The Best Mystery Story,” has a Hollywood film noir feel.
Each story is introduced by the appearance of the Mexican traditionally costumed Death (Sorany Gutiéerrez and Mónica Pérez, dressed in a black body suits with a skeleton figure).
The first story, “Anacleto Morones” is part of Rulfo’s only published book of stories, El llano en llamas (The Burning Plains and Other Stories) first published in 1953, which established Rulfo as a powerful literary figure in Latin America. His narrative is characterized by an economy of words and a strong rooting in the lives of rural Mexicans affected by the Cristero war (1926-29) which was an aftermath of the secularist, anti-Catholic clerical movement during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. This sentiment prevails in “Anacleto Morones,” a story that has enjoyed previous adaptations including an operatic one in 1990 by Mexican composer Víctor Rasgado.
McMillan-Herod takes appropriate liberties with the original, narrowing down the chorus of village women from 10 to five and inverting the order of the delivery of the fate of Lucas Lucatero from the end to the beginning without diminishing the dramatic effect. The humorous critique of the hypocritical church piousness of the gossipy spinsters comes through intact and the beautifully sung musical incantations by the women create a hypnotic effect. Why have they come to visit Anacleto Morones in his remote rancho? Seems that his father-in-law, Lucas Lucatero, is being proposed for sainthood by the women and they need Anacleto to come to town to vouch for the alleged miracles that Lucatero performed (which include healing syphilis with saliva). Morones, on the other hand, offers an entirely different perspective on the “saint” and the audience discovers other of Lucateros’ talents along the way.
In the title role of Anacleto Morones is Omar Padilla, a TD company member. The story begins true to the original, with Lucas literally defecating towards the women, a daring bare-butt action of disdain. Monsiváis delivers both the nuance and the sarcasm of his character without turning him into a cardboard figure. The women, dressed in black with veils and a scapular with the image of Lucatero around their necks, are rendered in the tradition of the classical Greek chorus, a brilliant directorial choice by Cardona, who also did the music. The women sing incantations, evoking Catholic Church rituals. Led by the statuesque Pancha Fregoso, Maggie Simons Ward brings this character to life with a humor that is both picaresque and imposing. Simons Ward is brilliant as Pancha, but not to be left behind, Mónica Pérez as Juana, Robin Clayton as the deceived Nieves García, Leticia Alaniz as Micaela, Sorany Gutiérrez as Filomena and Jennifer Stoneking as Melquíades each contributes key moments in the development of the plot that are memorable. Their role as the chorus of sanctimonious church-going village women comes through as a strong collective, while each performer adds her own personal spice to the mix. Their singing voices ring beautifully in this intimate performance space.
The second story, “The Best Mystery Story” by Cardona Peña, follows the familiar Faustian bargain, one where, in order to achieve a nearly impossible feat, aspiring writer Magallanes (Omar Padilla) is willing to make a pact with a mysterious Old Man (J.R. Bradford). While this plot, narrated artfully by Jennifer Stoneking, remains true to the Faustian tradition, the ending is sure to surprise. Monsiváis plays Venancio Parnassus, Mónica Pérez is Death, , and Sonary Gutierrez plays Lucía, the aspiring writer’s sweetheart. Bradford as the mysterious Old Man delivers a strong and ominous presence.
There are many subtle moments in both stories, but one that remains in my imagination is the synchronized voices of the women’s choral singing with the subtle increase and decrease in lighting. That moment of visual and auditory pleasure, so well-timed and sublime, speak of Cardona’s and Hurst’s art over the years. The physical gestures of the chorus women in the first play and that of Death also create subtle memory imprints, ones which foreshadow the International Theater Festival, forthcoming in February 2018, during which the master Italian director Eugenio Barba (founder of the internationally known Danish Odin Teatret and influential figure in contemporary Latin American theater) will be directing a performance and conducting workshops on the physicality of the actor’s body as a conveyer of meaning beyond the obvious.
» Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Department of Spanish at the University of North Texas. She is proud to serve as a steering committee member for the Latinx Theater Commons, a national network of Latinx artists and scholars.