Dallas — There’s still time to catch one of the best family-friendly arts options in North Texas right now, Cara Mia Theatre Company’s production of José Cruz González’s The Magic Rainforest, An Amazon Journey. This play proves to be a memorable, joyful experience for people of all ages with a childlike imagination and a love of nature; it brings the wonder into wonderful. Oh, and if you happen to have children in your life, bring them too.
The Magic Rainforest. An Amazon Journey highlights the brilliance of design. In a play for audiences young at heart, the visual elements of the scenic design (Mark Pearson and Jesse Zaragaza), lighting (Linda Blase), the larger-than-life masks, puppets and properties (Frida Espinosa-Müller) and the live, original musical score (Fabricio Farfán) top the aspects that make this production memorable. With acrobatic fight scenes and slow-motion action, this collaboration between Cara Mía Theater Company and Prism Co. co-directors David Lozano (executive artistic director) and Jeffrey Colangelo (fight director/choreography), and their company members, proves to be a fruitful step in the right direction for both. Of course, it also helps to have an excellently crafted play.
California Chicano playwright Cruz González is one of the industry´s best writers of works for young audiences, a sometimes overlooked area of live entertainment in the United States, but not in other parts of the world (both Mexico and Argentina have strong traditions in this area). This past week ITYARN, the International Theatre for Young Audiences Research Network, held its third international conference in Warsaw, Poland, with panelists and shows from all over the world, proving the growing prominence of the field.
Cruz González, a Professor of Theater Arts at the California State University, Los Angeles, began his directing career in the late 1980s while we were both graduate students at the University of California, Irvine. On a personal note, I credit Cruz Gonzàlez during those years for opening the doors for me to very important Latina/o work then being developed through the Hispanics Playwrights Project at the South Coast Repertory Theater in Orange County. Since then, his career has blossomed with laurels that include: the 2012 Ann Shaw Fellowship by Theatre for Young Audiences/USA, 2010 Kennedy Center National Teaching Artist Grant, 2009 American Alliance for Theatre & Education Distinguished Book Award, and is a member of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. José Cruz González's plays include Los Valientes, The Sun Serpent, Super Cow Girl and Mighty Miracle, Sunsets and Margaritas, Invierno, The Heart’s Desire, The Blue House, Tomás and the Library Lady, September Shoes, Harvest Moon, Salt & Pepper, Earth Songs, The Cloud Gatherer, Lily Plants A Garden, Old Jakes Skirts and Watermelon Kisses. A collection of his plays, Nine Plays by José Cruz González: Magical Realism & Mature Themes in Theatre for Young Audiences was published by the University of Texas Press in 2009. Cara Mía’s production marks the regional premiere of this play, which originally opened at the Kennedy Center in 2001.
The play’s allegorical theme serves to create a good story, while avoiding becoming preachy. It addresses the contemporary ecological problem of the burning of thousands of acres of oxygen and life-generating Amazon forest for the sake of profit and urbanization such as cattle ranching. Greed is the bad guy, embodied metaphorically by a menacing Fire Demon, and dramatically by the foreman Pereira (Dean Wray). Mauricio (Ivan Jasso), his assistant, portrays the plight of local peoples who end up working for foreign interests due to lack of other, sustainable economic opportunities. Aki, pronounced as in the Spanish aquí (meaning “here”), assumes the role of reluctant hero to his people, eventually learning the ancient, shaman ways of his forbearers. He learns what being a true warrior means: to valiantly face the circumstances that life presents us for the sake of a higher good. By learning what is necessary for him to survive, Aki also learns the power of community, which includes knowledge of a traditional heritage valuable for the survival of our planet.
On a less serious note, the child in me found glee in the interspecies love between Turtle (Ana Gonzalez), the Sloth (Joe Chapa) and the Toucan (Frida Espinosa-Müller). And, in a world where vegetables talk, one of my favorite scenes has the garden vegetables telling things from their perspective (Yam/Ana Gonzalez, Potato Plant/Jonah Gutierrez, Squash/Stephanie Cleghorn).
Ooh-ah moments include when Aki (Ricco Fajardo) sings, and when he and the Fire Demon (Dean Wray) have a slow-motion fight scene in the river, which reminds of the work of the fabulous Pilobulus. Throughout the entire performance, the sounds that come from the array of instruments played by Farfán, all visible onstage, feel like the living, breathing lungs of the forest. The instruments include a traditional Andean wooden flute called a tarka (with a range from shrilling to bass sounds), the Peruvian cajón (a wooden percussion box of African origins), the viola (which created a mysterious sound through the use of a pedal and by being plucked manually rather than by being played with a bow), the acoustic guitar, and a variety of voice effects that Farfán generates through a synthesizer. Farfán, a native of Cusco, Perú came to the United States six years ago to study viola performance and composition at Texas Christian University. He is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in Music at Southern Methodist University.
The sound matches the exuberance of the colorful set. While the use of drop cloth for the rain forest and strips of blue for the river may not signal design innovations, as theatrical conventions, they work very effectively here. What strikes me as innovative is the way in which the animal props, such as the Turtle’s shell and the Toucan’s wings and beak, are fabricated from wicker and other everyday objects. While Espinosa-Müller’s training in mask-making is known, she makes a noteworthy debut as costume and properties designer in this production.
The ensemble, of course, brings the piece to life. As in a best-case scenario, the blending of the two companies reveals no seams. Their training and expertise as physical actors and dancers shows. Hats off to them.
Meanwhile, by all means hurry and make a trip to the Amazon jungle, where a giant green-eyed Jaguar and a Fire Demon await to frighten and delight at the Latino Cultural Center!
» Teresa Marrero is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Theater in the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures, College of Arts and Sciences, University of North Texas.
» Read our interview with co-director David Lozano
» When buying tickets online, you use the code TJ2014 and you'll get a discount