Dallas — No words but there is dialogue. No songs but there is sound and a live musical score. No dancing but movement is central. Not an exact reproduction of Mexica/Aztec (Mexican, in layman’s terms) mythology, and yet there are recognizable masks and cultural referents. The word teotl itself is understood to be the fundamental notion of the Aztec´s religious universe. It is a Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) word that means a god, a central figure of creative energy/force, as such Teotl is represented by a ceremonial altar but not as a masked figure.
Is it a paradox or a critic’s play on words?
Teotl: the sand show is neither and both. Fundamentally, it is the second collaboration between PrismCo.’s Jeffrey Colangelo (writer, director, producer) and Cara Mía Theatre Co.’s David Lozano (executive artistic director, mask acting coach). The first took place with their co-production of The Magic Rainforest, a theater for young audiences’ piece by Los Angeles playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez.
Teotl is a theatrical piece that has the characteristics of several genres: it is performance-based and site-specific. It is dance theater without the dance. It is operatic without the lyrics. It has a clearly defined dramatic structure with epic conflict of epic proportions, a climax and a resolution. The plot has unexpected twists and turns. There is suspense and lots of humor. There are no words spoken throughout the entire performance. Not one. Yet it is clear to the audience what the conversation is about: a performance of meaning through the body, staging and sound. It is a battle between dark and light forces. In this sense, Teotl is elemental, both as in fundamental and as in based on the elements, however inverted the categories: sand satisfies thirst while water burns, and the body communicates without that bastion of intellectualism, logos: the word.
This piece reminded me of another memorable performance, long ago, during the 1985 Los Angeles International Theater Festival, where the performance gods graced me with attendance to Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal’s Blaubart, (Bluebeard, 1977) to Béla Bartók's opera Bluebeard's Castle. Dance. Performance. Atonal music. All through incredible dance acuity based on the body’s ability to create or break down meaning through motion. All inside a box filled with leaves.
On a lesser scale but no less engaging, Colangelo’s piece encases the action within a mythic sandbox that blends the present, visually represented by the Westerner anthropologist, and the distant Meso-American past, represented by all of the other characters. It includes an Aztec calendar with the ability to turn back time, which of course means rewinding live actions, including complex fight scenes. Colangelo´s choreography is succinct. There are no superfluous movements. No distracting chatter. The casts from both companies blend seamlessly. Cara Mía’s Frida Espinosa-Müller plays the commanding head Vulture, and she is also responsible for masks, many of which are replicas of authentic ones, costume and prop design. Natalia Dubrov is humorous and engaging as second Vulture, and Iván Jasso’s Quetzalcoatl conveys the essence of this central, benevolent Aztec figure.
PrismCo.’s Graham Galloway as the third Vulture blends seamlessly with the two senior Vultures, and Lauren Mishoe as the Westerner infuses humanity, tremendous expressiveness and a great deal of humor to her role as anthropologist. Dean Wray as Tezcatlipoca has the imposing and fearsome presence that this underworld personage requires. All of the actors wear masks. Their bodies fully embrace with their masked characters. For those in the know of Aztec cosmology, the costumes easily identify each. For those who do not, it is easy to tell who represents what.
Other than the movement-based acting, this piece relies entirely upon the set design, the sand box and all of the sand elements (not giving anything away here) and the sound/music. Mark Pearson, the scenic, lighting and set designer efficiently takes advantage, not only of the horizontal space low to the ground, but also the vertical space, creating a whole environment within the box. Trigg Watson, magic and special effects, brings wonder to the production, particularly with the illusive water in the ceremonial bowl. No, he would not tell how it’s done.
Other than the acting and the actual story, the most astounding aspect has to be the original music created and performed live in its entirety by Fabricio Cavelo Farfán. A native of the ancient Andean city of Cusco, Perú, his initial shamanic-like chanting engulfs the audience from beginning to end. The vibrations from the first five minutes of the piece were enough to physically affect me, inducing a calm mind-space. Without words, the music along with the gestural and lighting aspects, function integrally to tell a timeless story. Fabricio is a fabulous talent to watch in the Dallas theater scene.
Come ready to enjoy sand between your toes—or wear closed shoes—as the sand spills over into the non-performance area, much as the Meso-American worldview is still alive and well today, discretely disguised in syncretic forms.
» Teresa Marrero is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Theater in the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of North Texas