Dallas — Teatro Flor Candela, headed by Mexican artistic director and founder Patricia Urbina, presents Sanadora: Women’s Healing Theater, a Stage Trilogy in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project.
Founded in 2007, this small yet unique theater company creates work like no other (full disclosure: I collaborated with this company during its first year). True to Urbina's vision, Sanadora employs a non-realistic aesthetic, incorporation of exquisite and meaningful visuals, and soundscapes that provide the perfect cradle for actors’ creative juices to flow. Their work is generally devised under the directorial guidance of Urbina. Actors are encouraged to find movements that go beyond the quotidian to express dramatic action and feelings. Aligned with Eugenio Barba and Jerzy Grotowski’s anthropological theater, Flor Candela goes beyond this inspiration to generate work that is both meaningful and beautiful. With this production as part of the indispensable Elevator Project, the group can finally count on the technical sophistication that Urbina’s vision requires. Although the group typically performs in Spanish, Sanadora is performed in English, except for Tzotzil recordings in the second part of the trilogy.
The word Sanadora means a woman healer in Spanish. Teatro is a masculine noun. The company feminizes the word teatro by creating the neologism, teatra, for Sanadora teatra. At its core, this three-part piece performs a ritualistic healing that immerses the audience in its vibe.
Performed in Hamon Hall at the Winspear Opera House, there is no stage, just an open space whereby the performers, props, and the audience members are on the same level. While each of the pieces functions as a complete story in itself, there is a huge, white spider web-like piece that hangs over the center of the ritual/performance space. This ephemeral structure is made of white strings, one of which is constantly being handled by a young woman dressed in a robe that also displays the spider’s web and, later, is dressed as the spider.
There is no separation between the performers and the audience and the actors encircle the audience in an immersive experience that is soothing and never threatening. The seating is rearranged between each piece; audience members leave the space with all of their belongings for about 10 minutes each time. In the first piece, entitled “Labyrinth/Laberinta” the seating is U-shaped with an upper platform from which King Minos operates. In the second piece, “Pilgrimage/Peregrinar” the seating is shaped like two brackets; and in the third, entitled “Voyage/Traversía,” the seating is circular. Upon reentering the space, we are faced with the ever-present hanging white spider web; however, the props are different for each story. There is no set seating and the audience members must find new seats for each piece. The impermanence of our seating arrangement calls out to the uncertainty of life itself, whereby change is the only constant of life. From acceptance, different perspectives arise. This is palpable in the design of Sanadora.
The program states that “The voyage as a metaphor for life… is often examined in Western culture. At times, each person’s existence is a series of journeys, labyrinths, and pilgrimages beyond what is evident in our daily lives.” As such, the essence of this performance is metaphysical in nature, deeply personal and existential, not without political nuances.
The program does not list each character and actor by name, but rather as a group, thus it is difficult to identify each performer by name. Having this information in the program would be helpful. The cast for all three pieces is: Diana Gómez, Alejandra Ramos, María Cabeza, Carmela Lamberti, Carlos Arranz, Andy García, Alejandro Hernández, Bertha Alicia Tittle, and María Rodríguez.
The first piece, “Labyrinth/Laberinta,” reconstructs the classical myth of the Minotaur. Carmela Lamberti empathetically plays Minos’ wife Pasiphae, who falls in love with the Minotaur (Carlos Arranz, whose immersion in physical theater makes him an asset in this production). Minos, played by Andy García, sings some of his lines through a crystal clear, operatic voice. Allusions to the failings of men in absolute power do not go by unnoticed in the present political climate in the United States.
The questions to be answered are whether Ariadne follow the myth and kill her brother, the Minotaur, in order to save her own lover, Theseus; and if fate be thwarted. This piece sets the mood of an ethereal ambiance through a storyline familiar enough in Western cultures. Being caught in the labyrinth seems to be the starting point from which liberation may be attained. In this first piece, the spider web functions as a visual and metaphoric labyrinth.
The second, “Pilgrimage/Peregrinar,” is the story of an American girl, Ambar Past. This story is company member Maria Cabeza’s, who also performs the main role. She is suicidal, depressed and lost in this culture of materialism and consumerism. She finds redemption and a sense of self by traveling to one of Mexico’s indigenous Highland Mayan Ttoztil communities — one on which Urbina’s husband and technical collaborator, Texas Christian University’s Dr. Donald Frischmann, has done extensive research. While there, one of the indigenous women (played by Lamberti) heals her. This piece is poetic and hypnotic with recorded sounds, musical clips, and instruments such as bells and glass soundings played live. Cabeza puts her heart and soul into every performance, and this one is no exception.
Here a master female weaver of Mayan traditional clothing sits under the web that continues to lurk overhead. Healing one’s soul though traditional methods that include reverence for plant life is at the core of this piece, one which I found profoundly touching. Notable were two women in the audience whose eyes remained closed and sat in a meditative state. After the show, Urbina thanked the meditadoras, the women who were in fact meditating and channeling healing in their seats. In my experience as an audience member, I have never witnessed meditators such as these as part of the experience but not part of the performance that the audience watched.
The third piece, “Voyage/Travesía,” is inspired by the life and work of the inimitable Mexican painter Remedios Varo, one of the first acknowledged female surrealist painters during the first half of the 20th century. Her artwork is populated by surreal creatures and spaces, created from her own imagination. It is said that she revolted against the oppression of Catholicism by turning to art, a place where she was able to create her own kind of mysticism. Poetry and painting saved Varo from her own repressive times, as they are also presented to us as ways of healing. Several of the artist’s images are projected on a tall side wall, which unfortunately take the viewer’s attention away from the complex ritualistic live action happening in the center of the circular space. In a technical dream world, holographic images of Varo’s paintings, projected onto the performance space itself, would have taken this segment into another world. Remedios Varo’s work may not as well-known in the U.S., where the reigning female Mexican artist is Frida Kahlo. Unlike Kahlo’s symbolic primitivism, Varo’s work is sophisticated both in technique and subject matter.
Moving from a Classical Greek myth such as that of the Minotaur to the specific healing practices of the Highland Mayas, and back to the life of an important 20th century female Mexican artist is a smart move that makes the themes accessible to a wider audience, proving that the local can be universal and vice versa.
All in all, this performance offers a visual, aural and spiritual feast that surely will touch even the most cynical. The audience on opening night was evenly mixed among men and women, and the gentleman sitting next to me at the end heartily applauded and expressed profound appreciation. Me? I left teary-eyed. I found the experience deeply touching. By all means, go feel and see something very unique and different from the usual local theatrical fare.
» 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).