Brainy horror

Cora Cardona, artistic director of Dallas' sole seasonal Latino theater troupe, Teatro Dallas, has in the past expressed good-natured frustration about what she perceived as a clash of cultures between the traditions of Latino theater and the expectations of Anglo critics. It's true that in recent memory neither the Observer nor The Dallas Morning News has featured a Hispanic theater critic, or even just an individual with an extended knowledge of the intricacies of the Spanish stage.

The wily Cardona was not suggesting that the theater of her mother country could only be appreciated by a first-generation Latino--her husband, Teatro director and designer Jeff Hurst, and Teatro's in-house playwright, Valerie Brogan, both have exhibited an instinct for Spanish theatrical conventions that have transcended their skin color. But although Cardona's company has earned its share of praise, the bad reviews by white critics tended to repeat the same mantra: melodramatic, overripe, unsubtle.

For her, these particular complaints have always missed the point. It's sort of like criticizing the pope for wearing a tall hat; that's just part of his job. Similarly, the intention of much Spanish and Latin American theater has been to illustrate the grander human emotions on an epic, splashy canvas. Pulsating, seething, high-volume conflict has always been the top priority of Latino playwrights. In truth, the works of the classical Spanish playwrights have been no more unsubtle or overripe than Marlowe or Shakespeare; that loose cannon academic discipline called translation has merely rendered the intricacies of Latino language simplistic in an English context.

This problem is compounded by the vast cultural differences that separate the United States from Spain and Latin American countries, which was the point made by Cardona. While it's certainly true that the entire Western world is turning into a smudgy Xerox copy of American pop culture, Spain and Mexico and the Central and South American countries have maintained a relationship with their folkloric roots that contemporary Americans can't understand. The bedrock mythology of Spaniards and the native American peoples they conquered plays an intense role in the everyday lives of millions of people worldwide--sort of like TV sitcoms, except that the plots of Latino theater are centuries old and have relied on the human imagination, not commercial television, to perpetuate them.

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Take the legend of the chupacabras, a demonic beast so relevant to the contemporary Mexican psyche that CNN did a story as recently as this summer about its latest appearances. Much like satanic cattle mutilations in the American Southwest and Midwest, chupacabras is a mysterious phenomenon invoked to explain the bloody deaths of livestock. CNN reported the claims of individuals in Mexico and South Texas who swore they'd witnessed, if only fleetingly, a humanoid creature with batlike wings who walked low to the ground. This thirsty monster was blamed for draining the blood of cows, goats, and other farm animals, and occasionally attacking humans, though never fatally.

As is usually the case with native folklore, like Elvis sightings, to challenge the validity of the claims is to miss their importance; what need does this story meet in the peoples who believe? One of the primary translations of chupacabras is derogatory:It often means "goatsucker"--one who is mindlessly, bestially brutal and hungry. Yet the chupacabras also represents a real threat to livelihood, and so is an object of fear. Opponents of President Salinas, the previous Mexican leader, created T-shirts that featured an illustration of the gargoylelike bloodsucker with a photo of Salinas' head attached to it. Need we say more?

Cora Cardona's Teatro Dallas has always attempted to locate the middle ground between ancient and postmodern, conqueror and conquered, Anglo and Latino. The company's latest production under Cardona's direction, Night of the Chupacabras, combines elements of European ghost stories, Latino legends, and contemporary American horror films to honor El Dia de los Muertos--The Day of the Dead.

Teatro Dallas has for the past few Octobers relied on a cycle of plays by Valerie Brogan, Don Juan Vampire, that dealt with the undead myth. For this year's show, Cardona presented Brogan with a series of stories by Teatro members including Jeff Hurst, John Flores, and Victor O. Salinas. Night of the Chupacabras is what Brogan crafted, an atmospheric anthology with some surprisingly visceral thrills as well as a morality play wrapped inside its clever, modest funeral duds.

The heroes and villains of this production are the same people--three cocky, foul-mouthed gang members (Frank L. Mendez, Eluid Castillo, and Manuel De La Cruz) who make the mistake of stopping inside a cemetery on El Dia de los Muertos. Tough as these guys proclaim to be (and they are, in fact, vicious gangbangers--killers of other young gang members), they can't quite shake the willies induced by this garden of tombstones. The sinister caretaker of the cemetery is a cigar-smoking old man (John Flores) whose bass voice booms an accent somewhere between Spanish and Transylvanian. The old man learns these juveniles belong to a gang called Las Chupacabras, and he regales them with a trio of stories about the legend that range from the profoundly creepy to the suddenly shocking. (The show contains at least two good screams for unsuspecting audiences.)

Night of the Chupacabras is alternately elegant and crude, powerful and disposable. Of course, Cardona, Brogan, and company haven't set out to create a masterpiece, just a compact piece of Halloween theatrical escapism with a bit of historical context. They mostly succeed, thanks to the provocative silent-movie set design by Cora Cardona, Jeff Hurst's evocative lighting, and some skillful performances.

The best moments are created by a Teatro company member and a young newcomer to the fold. I must confess that I shared the stage with Dallas native John Flores in two high-school theater productions, and he's as imaginative and extravagant as ever. As both the old man who narrates the tales and a reincarnated gang member of ill repute, Flores creates distinctly different characters who occasionally overlap in moments when his self-indulgence leads him to draw out a line too long; he's too good to rely on scenery-chewing. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Abel Hernandez, a student from Greiner Middle School who plays a beautiful girl's adopted "pet"--who turns out to be chupacabras. Hernandez is compelling in a role without dialogue. Shambling low to the ground, pulling deep-throated wheezes out of his chest, he expresses love and hate with an animal purity that's scary. Night of the Chupacabras burns bright when such artless, mythic presence commands the stage.

Night of the Chupacabras runs through November 2. Call 741-6833.

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