Dallas — Celebrating its 33rd season, Undermain Theatre continues to bring edgy, new works to Dallas audiences. It also marks an important, ongoing effort in the local and national theater scenes to stage works by Latina/o artists as an integral part of the American theater. As such, the Undermain is committed to stage all three parts of the trilogy that begins with so go the ghosts of méxico, part one—a brave woman in méxico, penned by Los Angeles-born Matthew Paul Olmos, in subsequent seasons. Parts two and three will be world premieres for Undermain.
Part one takes place in a surrealist world among the living, the dead, an eclectic aural world of music/sound, and an uncanny radio. “Surrealist” is a word I use purposefully, avoiding the often (mis)used “magical realism.” Surrealism, as an early 20th-century Western European artistic movement, sought to reconcile the disparities between dreams and reality. This notion not only fits Olmos’ piece, but rather goes hand in hand with the traditional Meso-American indigenous belief system that places time and space at the center of its cosmological axis. While time is represented in the death and life regenerative cycles, space unites various fields of experience, including that of the material and the spiritual.
Katherine Owens, director of the play and founding member of the Undermain Theatre, welcomed the audience on opening night, revealing that the story about to unfold is based on the true story of a young Mexican woman who, at the age of 22 assumed a post that no one else would in her cartel/drug-ridden town: she became the Chief of Police.
In the play Mari (played with gravity by Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso) faces opposition not only from the corrosive power of cartel money and influence, but from her husband (played with matching pathos by Ivan Jasso). While there are conflicts on various levels, the husband/wife strife hinges on the world to be created for their unborn daughter who, though invisible, plays a significant role throughout the piece. The husband wants a flesh-and-bone daughter to offset the horrors of the external world, while Mari seeks to make a better, less corrupt and dangerous world for their unborn daughter by taking on the badge. The dangers to which this exposes herself and the family eventually come to fruition.
Other than the internal struggle between them as a couple, Mari faces a nightmarish world of the decapitated ghost of The Police Chief (played expertly by David Lugo whose voice continues to resonate with that of the great actors of the American silver screen of the 1920-40s). He is drawn to the music, Mari’s humming or singing a Mexican folk song, “Canción Mixteca,” written in 1916—just after the Mexican Revolution of 1910—by José López Álvarez. This music and the sounds emanating from a mysterious car radio that is unwired to any system are pivotal.
As sound designer, Bruce DuBose weaves a range of aural experiences, from ceremonial Tarahumara indigenous drums to rattles, shakers, flutes, the guitar, keyboards, and the waterharp. He also incorporates ambient sounds and electro-magnetic hums, and alters the voice of the dead to separate them from the living, thus engulfing the audience in a strangely familiar yet eerie mix of realities.
The ambient and psychological darkness are offset by a brilliant design of the space (John Arnone) and by humor, introduced by the crisp and perfectly timed performances of Bruce DuBose as Güero, the wealthy drug-buying americano, and Blake Hackler as El Morete, a drug cartel lackey. Costumes (Amanda Capshaw) are efficient and minimal.
I met playwright Olmos in Chicago, during the 2015 Carnaval of New Plays developed by the Latina/o Theater Commons with DePaul University and subsequently interviewed him. At that time what impressed me about Olmos’ work with his winning piece, the living’life of the daughter mira, was his mastery of language, a twist of a phrase here, a poetic nuance there just enough to avoid artifice yet brilliant enough to be noticed. In so go the ghosts of méxico, while his talent with language still resonates and the mixing of realities prevails, his sense of timing becomes yet another feather in his hat. The humor in so go the ghosts… is timed to perfection. It lightens up the heaviness of the atmosphere and flows quite effortlessly through the absurdity of the situation at hand.
so go the ghosts of méxico is a well-crafted play, expertly directed, coherently designed and brilliantly acted. Now, if the opening scene—staged on the floor downstage—were staged farther upstage or atop an elevated surface, those of us sitting in rows three or behind in a sold out opening night would have actually seen it.
» Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Theater in the Spanish and Dance and Theater Departments at the University of North Texas. She is an Advisory Board Member of the Latina/o Theater Commons.