Dallas — So go the ghosts of méxico, part 3 is the final work of a trilogy about the U.S.-México border drug wars, written by Matthew Paul Olmos, and it is also the centerpiece of Undermain Theatre’s Whither Goest Thou America: A Festival of New American Play Readings through May 5. If you missed parts 1 and 2, the staged readings of those parts can fill you in. Other works in the festival are Gordon Dahlquist’s futuristic sci-fi Red Chariot, Len Jenkin’s Vox Humana, and Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box. (Schedule of readings is at the bottom of this review.)
I saw the third part of ghosts, co-directed by Katherine Owens and Danielle Georgiou, on opening night to a packed house on a stormy night of heavy rain.
Since Olmos’ trilogy is not sequential, it is not necessary to have seen the other plays. You can have a full experience with each one individually. If you did see one or both of the previous parts, this one—while sharing the thematic similarity of the nefarious effects of the drug wars on both sides of the border—is different. For one, it is much more accessible. By this I mean that the poetic and surreal elements are easier to follow. Plus, this play has strong and quite distinguishable voices from all four characters, from which Kristi Funk Dana’s character of The Sales Lady stands out as she articulates a persona quite familiar to us these days: the white, female broadcast news anchor who spins the news to the advantage of certain political perspectives. As such, Dana is brilliant and charismatic in her own, racist and privileged ways. Her character is all too familiar, and she does it justice from her lean and well-dressed appearance, to her piercing blue eyes, to the overwhelming presence of her voice.
Olmos fragments the storyline in order to render various points of view (a technique he also employed in ghosts 1 and 2). Having Gigi Cervantes’ A Good Woman (who is predominantly a mother/poet) as a counterpoint to the sales lady brings forth both the heartache of inadvertently losing a child to the drug wars, and the cynical spin of those whose job it is to massage the truth into palatable bits of newsworthy consumption (which is the sales lady’s job). She happens to be a Mexican mother, but she could be anyone who has lost a child to gun violence.
Amidst all of this tragedy, this play has a sense of humor. And, as is characteristic of this playwright/poet, some very beautiful language.
What Olmos does with the characters of Lila (played with a mix of emotion and restraint by Barbie Bernier) and the nameless boyfriend (Omar Padilla) is especially interesting. Here we get various versions of how much of a good girl Lila actually was versus the dark portrayal of her as a drug user. The drug in this play happens to be cocaine. Padilla’s charming but sometimes menacing boyfriend’s personal story also yields various possibilities in degrees of good-and-badness. Be it the personal narratives of the private lives of the victims or the ongoing public diatribe about building a physical wall between the current U.S. president and Mexico, neither side comes out clean. Both are involved and both are dirty.
Two highlights of this production are the original musical score by composer April Guthrie, and Georgiou’s movement, both of which bring innovative elements to the performance. Lila’s haunting death song, driven by the enigmatic sounds of the cello (Guthrie plays the cello and most of the instruments herself), glide in and out throughout, like a ghost. As in his previous so go the ghosts… the dead and the living share space and consciousness. The music separates and unites the various loci of experiences. In a short conversation during the opening night party, Guthrie shared the fact that she had already written another score for this play, which she discarded after attending a staged reading at NYC’s New Dramatists. She said what impacted her the most was the tempo of the dialogue, something she had imagined to be slower. Thus, she rewrote the music to what Olmos has described as almost another character.
Georgiou’s imprint (who also collaborated for part 2) manifests itself in the subtle choreography and body movements of the characters. I was struck by two scenes in particular. One has Lila’s body contort in pain rather than demonstrate in any graphic manner the violence being exerted upon her physically. Another memorable scene has the sales lady, dressed to the hilt in an evening gown, sitting on the boyfriend-as-narco-dealer’s lap while he manipulates her every gesture as she addresses the audience.
Evocative yet much simpler than the part 2 set design (by John Armone), projections are strategically employed to offer a sense of physical place. Lighting by Steve Woods, costumes by Amanda Capshaw and properties by Linda Noland also work with a tighter, simpler aesthetic, which in my opinion allows the audience to focus on the characters with fewer visual distractions. The intimate space at the Undermain allows the audience an almost cinematic intimacy with theatrical experience, thus enabling the actors to do less and show more.
This play breaks the fourth wall right from the beginning and does so throughout. As such, the Brechtian underpinnings emerge not only as (empty) technique but are also a core part of the play’s message. While endings without a resolution in the real world often carry with them ambiguity as art forms, this play sends us home urging us to see at least two sides to the story and to question, to think rather than to allow ourselves to be passively manipulated by “the news.” What we accept as truth should not be just the good spin of a story. And, as a theme also highlighted in TheaterJones’ recent Hamilton review, the idea of who tells our stories looms large whether by the color of our skin, the sound of our names, the language we speak (or do not speak), or the perspective of the story that we buy.
» 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 coeditor 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)
Whither Goest Thou America? A Festival of New American Play Readings
- 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 17: Red Chariot by Gordon Dahlquist (playwright in attendance)
- 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 18: Red Chariot by Gordon Dahlquist (playwright in attendance)
- 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 24: Vox Humana by Len Jenkin (playwright in attendance)
- 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 25: Vox Humana by Len Jenkin (playwright in attendance)
- 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 1: so go the ghosts of méxico, part 1: a brave woman in méxico by Matthew Paul Olmos
- 7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 2: so go the ghosts of méxico, part 2 by Matthew Paul Olmos
- 7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 11: He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box by Adrienne Kennedy
- 2 p.m., Sunday, May 12: He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box by Adrienne Kennedy