Patrons who wandered into the Undermain's basement theater for a near-sold-out Saturday-night performance of The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea were warned solemnly that the world premiere of Cherrie Moraga's dystopian tragedy contained adult situations and nudity. The house manager informed us that audience members on previous nights had been notified, didn't take the warning seriously and wound up storming out when said "situations" arose. Director and star Adelina Anthony, founder of Dallas' Cara Mia Theatre and currently a Los Angeles stage artist, might be accused of flaunting woman-woman sex with the explicit couplings that occur here, except this kind of raw sexuality is so rarely witnessed--even in lesbian political theater, which can sometimes possess an odd Puritanical streak--that it's hardly gratuitous in even such a concentrated dose. And Anthony the actor is so confident, so impassioned in her performance of an angry woman who luxuriates in the taste and touch of female flesh, yet has great conflict over whether to affix the "L" label to herself, that there is little sense of the show-off in her lovemaking. She savors sex with the same instinctive relish that causes her to knock back swigs of tequila from the bottle.
The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea is another in the Café/Negro series of annual collaborations between the predominantly Latino troupe Cara Mia and the mostly African-American company Soul Rep, which adds another layer of intrigue to the material. If theatrical lesbian amour this unabashed can still startle us, sweaty grapplings between Latin women feels like it might blow the top off our craniums. Some people insist--and others vehemently deny--that homophobia is a problem that's gone largely unaddressed within communities of color.
Whether that's true or not, Moraga found a unique intersection of ethnicity and sexuality within her own life. Her father was Anglo, and Moraga was born light-skinned enough to "pass" in white society, something her mother, an immigrant laborer branded as illiterate in America, encouraged with the hope that her daughter would have a better life. With the dawning awareness of her own sexual orientation, the playwright-essayist soon realized that she'd also been "passing" as straight among her hetero peers of all colors.
Her fascination with boundaries and borders, the illusion of dichotomous identities, is what gives The Hungry Woman a vitality that transcends screeds. At its core, the story is too universal to be exclusively appropriated by any particular movement. The play takes place in some indeterminate future where brown and white and black and red people have formed their own ethnic nations; the lesbians and gay men among them are banished like lepers into their own colonies. Medea (Anthony) lives in one with her lover Luna (an authentically butch Marisela Barrera in her most affecting stage performance to date), her son Chac-Mool (Robert Moreno) and her wheelchair-bound grandmother Mama Sal. She's played by Barbara Bierbrier, an actress who's perfected the yenta role locally and now expands impressively into a salty Latina matriarch. Medea's husband, Jason (Rosalinda Garcia Negrete), attempts to lure her back by insisting that she's not really a lesbian, that her emotions for Luna may be real but she lacks the wholehearted commitment to such radical outsiderhood. Jason is really after their son Chac-Mool for his own purposes, and given that playwright Moraga has been using Euripides' tale as a touchstone, you don't have to guess where this custody battle is headed.
As clear and strong as its best-written moments are, The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea must have a charismatic and fearless actor in the title role to work. It's hard to believe Moraga could do much better than Adelina Anthony, who is by turns alluring and abrasive in the way that a young Bette Davis could be. Maybe I'm drawn to this comparison by Anthony's giant, searchlight eyes that miss nothing among her fellow performers; she's certainly more beautiful than Davis and, best of all, less affected. What she does radiate plenty of are Davis' intelligence and pride. Indeed, it's these qualities that make this Medea more than a feminist firebrand or martyr. She's a person who's done in as much by her own passions as by the injustices with which she lives. Viewed thus, this Hungry Woman loses a two-sided battle that many of us wage every day.
The abundance of trees around the stage in Fort Worth's Trinity Park makes for a nice natural cover that Dallas' Samuell-Grand Park lacks. Watching Shakespeare in the former is like being huddled in a shady grove, whereas the latter feels distinctly like a sloping valley bottom. It's an issue of intimacy vs. grandiloquent sweep, but more than that, of tolerable temperatures for actor and audience alike. I'm always amazed that, come late July when twilight pushes into triple-digit temperatures, Shakespeare Festival of Dallas thespians on the Samuell-Grand stage aren't dropping faster than tech stocks. Sword fights in body stockings, rather than body armor, would seem to be a mandate for the costume designer.
I experienced a recent, very mild late June night at a reserved table beside the narrow runway that leads straight into the makeshift stage for Fort Worth's Shakespeare in the Park. That's an alternative handle for the usual Allied Theatre Group crew; folks like Jim Covault and Jerry Russell leave the Stage West space on University Drive during summer months and attack Will's athletically symbolic verse with an enthusiasm that builds during their contemporary play-laden regular seasons.
Elizabethan fanatics should know that Shakespeare Festival of Dallas is about to follow up Shakespeare in the Park's current The Tempest with an encore version and, one assumes, a wholly distinct vision of Prospero's island full of witches, spirits, magic books and buffoons who aspire to positions of leadership. Hopefully, the relatively temperate summer will continue throughout July and maintain hospitable conditions for folks in Samuell-Grand Park to retain their critical faculties for comparison.
As it is, even a springlike final weekend in Trinity Park won't make Shakespeare in the Park's The Tempest seem like any more than an oddity, and a disappointing one at that. Director Covault has redesignated Prospero's domain as a tiny isle off the Gulf of Mexico and nudged his large cast of eclectic ages, sizes and nationalities to speak in very broad Texas drawls. This reportedly worked well when last year Covault set up King Lear's empire as a sprawling ranch in West Texas (I didn't see it), but that's the claustrophobic story of a royal household imploding. The Tempest involves interlopers, wayfarers crashing on the coast of Prospero's floating paradise and attempting an overthrow of regimes. Fact is, everybody in Shakespeare in the Park's current production sounds like they're from different parts of Texas, and some sound like they've been studying the videotape of that 41-year-old John Wayne chestnut The Alamo rather than a live voice coach's instructions.
It's a distracting, chaotic mélange of dialects whose tone is unfortunately set by Nick Sandys as Prospero. Sandys is British by birth with the accent to prove it, and despite all the fervor with which he adores Ariel (Patrice Egleston, Sandys' real-life wife) and humiliates Caliban (a Godzilla-spined Jorge Castaneda), his weird Anglo-Tex accent keeps us at a distance. Couple this with the fact that Sandys resembles a younger, darker-haired Chuck Norris (at least, in this production), and I couldn't make up my mind what this Prospero reminded me more of--a TV Texas Ranger trying to expand his range with summer Shakespeare, or a talented Brit saddled with a concept that's all wrong for him.
Shakespeare in the Park's production would be a ragged if acceptable interpretation were it not for the prodigiously able list of Allied Theatre regulars--Jerry Russell, James Crawford, John Wayne Shafer and Ashley Wood--who wander somewhat aimlessly through it without the impact that their collective efforts should presumably bring. They make a puzzling parade of unmet expectations: With this actor sporting bathrobe and cowboy boots, and that one in fedora, bow tie and pale suit, we feel that the costumes have been draped on as heedlessly as the dialects.
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