Undead heads

Teatro Dallas sounds profound when it's Howling at the Moon

The small, about-to-be-homeless company known as Teatro Dallas makes art that falls through the cracks between contemporary entertainment boundaries, not to mention the Dallas theater scene. Are they too Latino, or not Latino enough? Should they be concentrating on folklorico rather than premiering political and philosophical voices from Latin American countries? Does their mix of high poetry, often stylized and expressionistic acting, and feverish depictions of violence and sexuality doom them to a small audience in a city whose Anglo and Hispanic populations are traditionally perceived to be unadventurous?

The answer, from this corner, is an echoing nunca! Consider the Undermain Theatre, which through some combination of perseverance, luck, and romancing the right pocketbooks, has built a core audience, and their work is the closest comparison I can think of to what Teatro does--both use theatrical extremes to refract and distort and mystify the human experience so we will recognize just how strange, beautiful, and savage what we live with every day really is.

Teatro, of course, has a core audience too, and reliable moneymakers in their arsenal--their annual fall Day of the Dead and International Festival shows. But because many of their artists are Latino, and because a chunk of their grant money from city and national resources is apportioned for their "multicultural" efforts, they will be saddled with expectations to speak for the group. When they don't, some people turn away, confused or disappointed. And though Teatro's accent is heavy and its perspective shaped by cultural experiences, this company has as its soul the conscience of the individual, shorn of the wiry outer fur that herd membership seems to grow.

The title of their 1998 Day of the Dead show, Howling at the Moon, might suggest that they've donned some pretty heavy werewolf pelts to give you the heebie-jeebies. The horrors in this fast-paced, beautifully written, and commandingly performed five-play collection are not the gotcha! kind Teatro delivered in its marvelous 1996 Night of the Chupacabras--there are no real screams here. Last year's Day of the Dead performance, Lamia, was a deeply disappointing show about a family curse that burned for too long on the fumes of atmosphere alone and flickered out before curtain. Howling at the Moon combines the eeriness of that play with the urgency of Night of the Chupacabras and adds a nutritional third layer of lyrical musings about the pre-Columbian notion of life and death being, essentially, the same thing. The deeper you plunge your fork into this confection, the more exotic, rich, and satisfying the flavors get.

It's important to note that the first three "plays" in the program, all directed by Christina Vela, are really skits: Teatro artistic director Cora Cardona adapted them herself, and she told Dallas Morning News critic Tom Sime, "If you blink, you miss them." I wasn't prepared for how true this was, and was a bit uncertain when one ended and the next began. Afterward I savored their Night Gallery-E.C. Comics, setup-punch-line approach to the supernatural. Alfredo Cardona Pena's Camellia concerns a little girl (Tess O'Leary) run amok in a funeral home; Alba, based on a radio story of unknown origin, features a woman (Karla Gonzalez) whose dreams are haunted by images of the same abandoned house; The Wall follows the fate of newlyweds (Susanna Guzman and Frank Mendez) who can't be helped by their grim housekeeper (Francis Munoz).

These three are really just appetizers for the evening's two main courses. Elena Garro's Solid Home, directed by Cora Cardona, doesn't have any twists and turns to speak of--when this one-act begins, we understand immediately that its setting is a family crypt occupied by several generations of the same argumentative clan. Ironically, the veteran in this damp, stony refuge is a little girl named Catita (Veronica Escamilla) who died a long time ago. "Diptheria brought me here," she says by way of explanation, making the disease sound like a guardian or a chaperone. "She has fingers like cotton."

On the other end of the age spectrum is Jesusita (Christina Vela), an 80-year-old complainer who's forever horrified at the ugly nightgown she was buried in. She is also Catita's sister, having lived the full life that was denied her sibling. In between them is the fatally practical Gertrudis (Francis Munoz), who has accepted over the decades that the heaven her Roman Catholic faith promised her in life has actually proven to be a long stay in death. The group awaits the arrival of Lidia (Susanna Guzman) so that they may, as a complete family, graduate from death back to life--not as themselves, but as, essentially, atomic particles of the living, the very substance of life itself.

Cora Cardona's direction of Michel de Ghelderode's Strange Rider begins on a sinuously scary note with Dallas dance artist Jennifer Olsen from the Ground Level Dance Company doing a slow, slinky dance in a skeleton costume that manages to be erotic and threatening at the same time. The way she writhes on the floor, then hops up and thrusts her death mask toward the audience, you're half afraid she's going to pounce and suck the life out of some unprepared audience member right in front of your eyes.

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