Dallas — Kitchen Dog Theater continues its 28th season with the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Wolf at the Door by Marisela Treviño Orta, a native of Lockhart, Texas, who now resides in Chicago. While the press information states that this “fable…is part of Marisela’s cycle of fairy tale plays inspired by Latino folklore and mythology,” it is not. Let’s not whitewash the rich and varied cultural heritages of Hispanic and native peoples of the Americas under the single, non-descriptive “Latino”—or even “Latinx.” This play is firmly anchored in what we commonly call Mexica or Aztec culture, whose language is Nahuatl. It belongs to the last peoples to invade and settle in Tenochtitlán, today known as Mexico City. On a larger scale, it is Mesoamerican.
Wolf at the Door, directed by Christopher Carlos, bases its premise on two very different cultural practices: one, the beliefs associated with what happens to a human being’s soul upon severance from the body; and the other, the tragedy of domestic violence. I confess to cringe at the sight of representations of people of color linked with issues that have now become stereotypical, particularly the macho man who beats his wife. Do we really need a reiteration of that commonly circulated image? However, the topic of domestic violence supersedes cultural and racial boundaries making it, unfortunately, a universal topic. It does not respect race, class, or culture. As any survivor will tell you, deliverance comes in a wide variety of ways, and it is unequivocally empowering.
A visually appealing set (by Clare Floyd DeVries) in earthen colors contrasting with turquoise suggests a late 19th or early 20th century Mexico hacienda (although prior to reading the program notes I thought we were in New Mexico). The period-appropriate costumes (Korey Kent) are simple yet perfectly realistic. A black, wrought iron frame bed sits in the middle of all the action, strategically placed to face a fireplace, thus with the head to the audience. This works well for the delivery of the Isadora’s (Alejandra Flores) baby, brought into this world by la vieja Rocío (Isadora’s nana, who is actually a domestic worker for Isadora’s birth family, played by Dolores Godínez). Both women have lived for less than a year since Isadora’s marriage to the violent Séptimo (which means Seventh, since he was the seventh child in his family). Séptimo (Rubén Carrazana) exercised a sort of fascination upon the innocent Isadora and her family, all believing that he was a kind and honorable man; a man’s man. Turns out he is a liar and an abuser. Too late for Isadora, whose marriage vows and Catholic upbringing do not permit her to escape, much less divorce. Séptimo metaphorically shoots himself in the foot by destroying that which he professes to love most.
Where, then, can deliverance come from?
Enter a naked, pregnant female creature whose link to a howling pack of wolves soon becomes evident. Her name is Yolot (Kristen Kelso), and with a bit of research, one finds that she is the incarnation of an Aztec deity Xolotl, whose purpose it is to carry the spirit of the dead to Mictlán, the underworld. Xolotl is associated with dogs, with whom wolves are family. While there are nine distinct levels of existence in this Nahuatl world view (or mythology, as Westerners might call it), women and babies who die at birth go to a special, sweet place. Yolot is near Séptimo’s hacienda for a very specific reason, which all but the old woman Rocío figures out in time. While Yolot hears her brothers howl in the hills and knows they await her, Isadora awaits her family and brothers to visit her at the hacienda and hopes for redemption. But not for long. Isadora decides to take matters into her own hands because, finally, she realizes she wants something on her own. The recognition of her own desire arms her with new-found courage.
Poetic language and an honest psychological profile of both victim and victimizer characterize this play. Poignant insights in the dialogue abound:
Yolot: You smell of grief.
Isadora: What does grief smell like?
Yolot: Like mother’s milk, but stale.
As Isadora, Flores brings us into her world with ease. She is such a believable character, right down to her impulse to forgive and forget Séptimo’s abuses. Godínez’s old woman is believable enough to have my friend totally connect her with her own nana while growing up in Mexico. In conversation during the opening night reception, someone mentioned Alfonso Cuarón’s award-winning film Roma as a reference point to the lives of live-in maids and their close emotional ties to their employer’s family. Not much has changed in hundred or so years of servitude for poor women.
Kelso’s Yolot goes beyond words to a corporal language true to canine stillness and acuity of hearing and observation. And yet, she is also human. Carrazana makes Séptimo so easy to dislike. At the performance viewed, the audience found some of his actions and words quite objectionable and voiced grunts, sighs, and other sounds of disapproval, and with sighs of relief with just deserts.
This could be tagged as a morality play or fable—although the playwright calls it a myth or an adult fairy tale (see interview below for her comment). It is impossible to walk out without getting the point of the story, which above and beyond all victimization, it is a story of self-deliverance and empowerment of those who survive. As I was writing this review, a headline from The Dallas Morning News caught my attention: “Woman Found in Dallas Lake Was Killed by Boyfriend after She Gave Him a Second Chance” (April 11, 2019). The names of both the woman and her boyfriend? Hispanic. The abuse? He was seen punching her in the face among other acts of physical violence. Her constant desire to forgive his lies and abuse by “understanding and loving him?” Recurring. The end? He murders her. Tragic story right in our own backyard.
Kitchen Dog Theater acknowledges the problem by continuing the conversation about domestic abuse. At the April 26 performance, proceeds go to Families to Freedom, an organization that physically transports North Texas abuse victims from dangerous homes or overcrowded shelters, to safety near family or friends across the country. Car-friendly snacks and gently used purses are appreciated donations accepted. Representatives from this organization will be in attendance in a community panel on domestic violence. For help call National Domestic Violence Hotline (24/7, confidential and anonymous): 1-800-799-7233.
As for the title of the play, in discussion, several opening-night theatergoers walked away with differing interpretations on the details, but general agreement on the basic premise.
The day after the show I asked Marisela, who I know from the Latinx Theatre Commons network, to give our readers where the idea for this play came from. Marisela and I met in 2015 in Chicago during the Carnival of New Latinx Works, where Wolf at the Door was selected for a reading. She has also shared with me a new horror/sci-fi piece entitled WMB for a project in which I am working on sci-fi in Latinx Theater.
Here is her response:
Wolf at the Door is unique in my body of work because the seed of the play was the retelling of a dream. I have very vivid and (from what other tell me) imaginative dreams. I was re-telling my coworkers a dream I had the night before--a pack of wolves was chasing me through a gated community. I sought shelter in a house, but realized it was made of glass and the wolves could see me. As the wolves crashing through the glass into the house I ran upstairs to hide in a bedroom, but the door didn't lock and I was forced to hold it closed. The last image of the dream was the fangs of a wolf as it was chewing the wood of the door around the doorknob. As I described the dream I said, "There was a wolf at the door." A coworker stopped me and said, "That would be a great title for a play."
Now, I don't usually work that way—starting with a title. As someone who has a great affinity for Greek mythology, I thought I would try to write a myth. However, all the myths involving wolves tend to be about werewolves. So I expanded my search to include dogs.
I was specifically looking at mythology out of Latin America. I found in my research the Mesoamerican belief about the afterlife—that dogs carried the spirits of the dead across a river to the afterlife.
I married the idea of wolves with this mythology and began writing the play. But the writing stalled. I realized it was the idea of writing a myth that wasn't aligning with the story I was telling. Myths often explain the natural world—why the seasons change, why the sun rises.
It was while re-watching an old TV series called The Storyteller—a Jim Henson venture that mixed puppets and people to retell Brothers Grimm fairy tales—that I realized, "I'm writing a fairy tale." That unlocked the play. While the inspiration comes directly from Latin America, it's the Western canon of fairy tales that informs the structure and tropes in the play.
As part of the NNPN Rolling World Premiere, Wolf at the Door has already been seen at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, N.J.; and will have subsequent productions at Milagro in Portland, Ore. (May 2-25, 2019) and Halcyon Theatre in Chicago (dates TBA).
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U. of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (May 2019, Northwestern University Press).