Unburied treasure

The world premiere of Little Mexico is another vivid Teatro treat

Over the last few months, it seems as though every major small theater company in Dallas--and a couple of debuting ones--has offered us a world-premiere show. The results have been mixed, but the ambitions behind them have been unassailable. It's an exciting time to be a theater critic in this city, and hopefully that excitement of poring over freshly minted ideas and effects in these pages has prompted you to dig into your beer money and visit some of these visions.

Dallas' past is the foundation of the previously reviewed Blind Lemon Jefferson: The Prince of Country Blues. It also underlies the Teatro Dallas world premiere of Little Mexico, an equally episodic but much more successful look at a wedge of this city's history once located in what is now roughly called Uptown, or the place near the Arts District and McKinney Avenue. Teatro and in-house playwright Valerie Brogan harvested this series of stories from a KERA-TV Channel 13 documentary about this immigrant settlement. They took these tales to the cast of young, serious-minded actors and developed the scenes in a series of improvisational workshops.

Little Mexico feels more organic and complete than you might expect from this process. There is still the general sensation of anthology. This can sometimes give these disconnected stories, which go back to the beginning of the century, weightlessness. But they are united and reinforced by strong, smart characterizations from a cast of youthful actors and by the sweeping, symbolic, occasionally grotesque vision of director Cora Cardona. She handily fills whatever gaps Brogan's script may have when it skips between times and tales.

Lighting designers Cardona and Pat Smith should be congratulated for the eerie ingenuity with which they attack the little moments in Little Mexico, whose turn-of-the-century tales of poverty, partying, prostitution, disease, and prosperity in Frogtown (the first name of Little Mexico) are offered in counterpoint to the lives of Pedro and Luz Roca (John Flores and Karla Gonzalez). They are an aging couple with grown children whose comfortable lives are shattered when a family archaeologist (Michael Garcia) suggests that some writing on a stone near their house means that a stolen Aztec treasure is buried there. Pedro becomes obsessed with discovering it, literally digging up the house, while his children (Frank Mendez and Elena Harvey Hurst) watch with horror. Simultaneously, we get scenes and situations from previous decades, from the hilarious (two Anglo FBI agents raid a tortilla factory suspected of being a bootlegger's operation during Prohibition) to the horrifying (scenes from Cement City, a cement plant in West Dallas where injury and disease were the rewards to poor Mexican-Americans toiling in wretched conditions).

Cora Cardona could perhaps be accused of emotional overstatement, but never emotional dishonesty. Her imagination is grandiose but adaptable to every moment, whether it be the horrifying domestic minimalism of a father weeping as his baby dies in his arms and pours away into dust at his feet, or a tall white screen projecting giant shadows of twisted and misshapen figures who carry limbs and multiple crutches, staggering through the hellhole that was Cement City. She uses every available theatrical technique, but this show feels mythic and finessed, not crammed, for her fervent efforts. Once again, she has consistently succeeded at a trick that few other directors in town can proclaim--casting actors who are often much younger than their characters but making you believe these roles anyway. Script-wise, Little Mexico isn't the strongest premiere Teatro has produced. A more modest and earnest production would likely reveal the obvious symbolism of the Roca family's hunger for the gold of the past even as they are oblivious to their community's sooty, priceless memories unfolding in scenes around them. Yet this kind of irony is no less truthful even if it appears self-apparent to us on a large stage, and Cardona and her cast know how to make it simultaneously fresh and ancient again. In its best moments, Little Mexico isn't just a play unfolding in real time. It's a genuine haunting.

Little Mexico runs through June 19. Call (214) 741-1135.

Good grief
A couple of representatives from Dallas Children's Theater may have wondered why the cynical, child-hating Dallas Observer theater critic was crying as he departed their latest production, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Isn't that the dude who slammed our holiday show and criticized a couple of the kids' performances? Isn't that the homosexual whose gay gene lacks the chromosome that instills a love of musicals, of which Charlie Brown is an especially notorious contemporary example because of that current Broadway revival? I could sense a whole staff getting ready to receive a fresh catbox liner via my review in this week's issue.

I'm still wary of musicals, though I don't hate kids--I just think they're smarter and more complex than indulgent procreative adults and the purveyors of so-called "children's entertainment" give them credit for. And that's precisely why I cried at the end of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Clark Gesner's 1967 assemblage of live musical comic strips starring Charles Schulz's Peanuts gang. The show's lovely closer, "Happiness," was one of the first songs I learned to sing in grade school. I loved it all the more because I was a rabid "Peanuts" fan, with posters on my wall and pictures I'd drawn myself and all the pocket and trade paperback collections on my bookshelf. I even had Snoopy's Super Book of Questions and Answers, about everything from botany to meteorology to rocket science. The lyrics of "Happiness" seem to ring with the sentimentalization of childhood that bugs the shit out of me ("Happiness is sharing a sandwich / Finding your skate key / Telling the time"), but if you're at all familiar with Schulz's vision at its prime, you'll know this simple wisdom is hard-earned by a cast of kids who have felt fear, disappointment, yearning, sadness, and fragile hope with all the force that adults do. Er, excuse me--with all the force that real children do.

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