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Although not generally interested in topical controversies, Cardona did revive a tragedy in 1993 that had been a political catalyst for the Mexican-American community here two decades earlier; nearly every house was sold out when she directed Santos, which recounted the 1973 "Russian roulette"-style murder of a Chicano youth by a Dallas police officer that almost incited a West Dallas race riot. Normally, her social tragedies are expressed in a more global, mythic manner--the blood red ribbon-festooned The Holy Inquiry (1997) concerns a young Brazilian woman in 1750 who is tortured and killed by the Roman Catholic Church after a sexually repressed priest is sent into a pious tailspin when her mouth-to-mouth rescues him from drowning. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Incredible and Sad Story of the Candid Eréndira and Her Soulless Grandmother (1998) saw a witchy matriarch in a grotesquely wrinkled mask who pimps her granddaughter to a desert camp of soldiers after the girl accidentally sets their house on fire. The girl eventually gets her revenge, but audiences sat breathless as she lay weeping and obscured in the back of a wagon while a line of hooting, chortling men stroke their own giant, prosthetic phalluses, lined up as shadow projections behind a screen.
You might assume from these descriptions that subtlety isn't one of Cardona's concerns, and it's true that generally she pushes her performers to eschew psychological realism for a more operatic pitch. But if Freud and Jung robbed mythology and fairy tales to build the Euro-Western frame of mind, Cardona specifically and Latino artists in general merely reach back further and return to those "fabulous" common roots--fable, myth, storybook, epic poem. Rationalism and naturalism are beside the point.
Cardona herself readily admits that her troupe's style can be called "melodramatic" or "flamboyant," but doesn't think about those adjectives in a pejorative sense. When Mexicans are in love, she says, they can't sleep and will serenade each other outside the bedroom window at 3 a.m. She embraces this cultural refusal to suppress passion--be it anger, fear, love, hate, or lust--as a distinguishing characteristic, not a flaw, a mark that's unique and revealing rather than a scar that disfigures. She goes on to give an anecdote about one of her visits to Peru that illustrates nicely how perceptions can get crossed.
"We went to the Museum of Gold, which contained all gold pre-Hispanic pieces," she recalls. "They were thousands of years old, and most of them were celebrating sexual acts. They were doing it in every possible way--penises and breasts and vaginas everywhere. An American couple was standing there and they said, 'My God, the Incans were animals.' And I walked over to them and said, 'You are looking at it from your Christian European perspective. It's not pornography; it's celebrating sexuality and creation and applauding our wonderful body. It's an homage to life.' The woman came back to me later and said, 'You're right. This isn't pornography. There's not that sense of morbidity or aggression or hostility.'"
Her style of directing actors to raise the most intimate fears and yearnings to that celebratory pitch stems from her own years taking lead roles at Teatro Dallas. She has since retired as an actor, feeling that she's run the gamut of roles that intrigue her. "I don't want to sound like a diva," she chuckles, "but there are only two or three directors in America right now I'm interested in working with, and they're not in Dallas." Her onstage work was simultaneously flamboyant and disciplined; she walked a treacherous line of wild-eyed spontaneity and classical refinement and almost always kept her balance. She rarely stole focus from her fellow performers, but there is a sense that Cardona was so very much alive and alert onstage that her co-stars couldn't resist but take her lead. Two of her last and best roles were in two-character plays, both directed by Mexican theater artist Eduardo Ruiz Savinon. Profane Games (1993) featured her and Scott Latham as a brother and sister who carried on an incestuous love affair in the same house with their parents' corpses. The children had killed them and, one Christmas Eve, took their decaying skeletons out to re-enact the night Dad discovered their forbidden love and had to be eliminated along with Mom. That same year, she was a gnomish and temperamental Indian woman in The Tree, plaguing a wealthy, arrogant Spanish widow with supernatural visions involving Satan, an abusive husband, and the tree outside their house. Less ignorant than mischievous, Cardona was an evil little child whose dogged superstition fired a tiny class upheaval in one household.
Regardless of her onstage triumphs, "I prefer directing," Cardona says. "I love working out the timing with the actors, trying to achieve what the playwright wants but at the same time finding imagery that may not be in the text. Sometimes they see a show I've directed and ask, Is that my play?"
Adelina Anthony was an apprentice of Cardona's for two "intense" years in the mid-'90s, during which she traveled to festivals in Ecuador and Peru. She founded Cara Mia and afterward moved to New York and then Los Angeles to attend UCLA on a full scholarship. Anthony now heads up La Macha, L.A.'s only lesbian Latina troupe. She credits her experiences at Teatro Dallas with helping her develop a sophistication that cuts through some of the bureaucratic and provincial bullshit at universities and in hermetically sealed theater scenes like New York City's. She calls Cardona "the pachanga queen," using a Spanish word that means "hard partying." It refers both to Cardona's ability to have a good time offstage--apparently, her Sangria recipe has a legend of its own--and to her passionate need to depict the extremes of living onstage.