Poetry in motion

Two weeks ago in this space, while reviewing Our Endeavors' disappointing production of Albert Camus' Caligula, or The Meaning of Death, I suggested that a rape that happens offstage in that show should be brought onstage to balance some of the windy philosophical stretches with a little raw emotion.

Well, Dionysus, God of theater, wine, and a few other things I love, answered my prayers tenfold. The new Teatro Dallas show, The Incredible and Sad Story of the Candid Erendira and Her Soulless Grandmother, features not one but two rapes--the second, a mob affair in the middle of a desert. Both happen to the same terrified 13-year-old girl.

Teatro Dallas' painfully beautiful world premiere of Cora Cardona's English translation of this Jorge Diaz play is every bit as "sensationalistic" as Caligula tried to be, and all the more edifying for it. Director Cardona has created one of the most inventive, purely theatrical stagings this critic has seen in ages. The Candid Erendira and Her Soulless Grandmother unites all the contradictory adjectives you could apply to it--bleak and lush, hilarious and tragic, violent and tender--and pours them over the audience in a flow as smooth as the mysterious, shadowy river that follows Erendira through the desert as she dreams of a house by the sea.

Chilean playwright Jorge Diaz, whose works (The Toothbrush; I Die, Therefore I Am) have been translated and produced by Teatro previously to great effect, has based his story of an exploited adolescent's break from family bondage on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story of the same name. The stage incarnation of Marquez's tale recalls Bertolt Brecht so strongly, it could be renamed Grandmother Cruelty and Her Granddaughter in homage to Brecht's infamous story of a traveling matron who attempts to shield her children from war, yet profit by it at the same time. In this same vein, the witchy, poetic grandmother of Teatro's show (Christie Vela) attempts to exploit the youth and attractiveness of her granddaughter Erendira (Susanna Guzman), yet convince herself and the girl that a respectable, influential adulthood awaits the latter in a big house by the sea. The pair are on a caravan across the desert where the wicked grandmother employs a photographer and a violinist to create the atmosphere of an "event" around the prostitution of her granddaughter. Grandmother sells granddaughter's body for money as the solution to a million-peso debt the family has incurred after a flood.

Director Cora Cardona has deliberately matched theatrical effects to the poetic passages in Marquez's words. The Candid Erendira and Her Soulless Grandmother shimmers with her touches--a three-paneled screen behind and above the actors recreates exposition through a shadow play; a stretched piece of white cloth, blown by a fan and dappled with light, recreates the theme of flowing water; the sound of seagulls mixed with live and recorded music interrupts the action with surprising effectiveness. Anyone who revels in pure theatrical ingenuity will be amazed by one sumptuous course after another served by Cardona and her designers.

Although the entire large cast--including John Flores as the mailman who narrates, Bryan Matthews as the smuggler's son who falls in love with Erendira, and James Kille, Mark Odell, David Lozano, and Frank Mendez--does a good job of populating Erendira's disgraceful misadventures, this production is, as the title reveals, a two-woman show. Susanna Guzman is utterly, frighteningly convincing as a 13-year-old girl, making both rapes well-nigh impossible to watch. Although she's onstage almost constantly, she has relatively few lines, leaving her with the actor's perennial Herculean trial--acting with her eyes and body alone. She emerges victorious in the process, slowly hardening Erendira's virginal softness into cunning as she contemplates, by the end of the second act, two different methods of assassinating her tyrannical grandmother. I can't believe this is the same actress who played a cruelly efficient nurse and a lovelorn bachelorette in Teatro's last show, Latin American Evening; she's utterly unrecognizable from one character to the next.

Christie Vela could have trod the boards into dust in the role of Erendira's grandmother, which as conceived is so over-the-top, she could earn frequent-flyer miles by the end of one performance. Yet Vela, festooned in clay wrinkles and marvelously decadent robes she designed herself, isn't hammy or campy as the pimp grandmother. She is, however, genuinely scary. Her bellowings, her threats, her feverish fits of poetry and disjointed memories that come flooding out of her mouth while she sleeps, seem to arrive at the end of a long, cruel life. Vela earns every grandiloquent moment she gets, because she understands that the grandmother is very old first, and evil second. She's able to convey an undercurrent of pathos and regret throughout her tirades.

The Incredible and Sad Story of the Candid Erendira and Her Soulless Grandmother combines every primitive element of theater you can name into eerie, tear-soaked poetry. Yet despite the utterly original successes of shows like this and Latin American Evening, some city funding officials have complained that Teatro Dallas isn't serving the Latino community. Cardona's troupe has fallen through the cracks of multiculturalism because although they are written, directed, designed, and performed mostly by Latinos, their productions aren't so much "about" the Latino experience as they are universal meditations shaped by it. Their style is Hispanic, but their concerns are scattered throughout every human heart. As the only Latino theater in town, Teatro Dallas is expected to carry the burden of "Doritos, mariachi, and Cheech and Chong," according to Cardona. Can you imagine anyone complaining that the Undermain or Kitchen Dog serves the Anglo community poorly because their shows aren't primarily about being white in America? As long as Teatro Dallas creates art on par with The Candid Erendira and Her Soulless Grandmother, their place in the Dallas performance scene is preeminent. Whether you're brown, white, purple, or orange, Teatro needs your patronage. In return for the price of a ticket, they'll tell you something sad and wonderful about yourself.

The Incredible and Sad Story of the Candid Erendira and Her Soulless Grandmother runs through May 16. Call (214) 741-1135.

"I always knew this play was deeply sad," says Kitchen Dog Theatre artistic director Dan Day of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. "But after having worked with this production, I'm convinced that the circus motif we're using makes it even sadder."

Circus motif? Yep. Dan Day stars as Tom Wingfield, the ring master in Kitchen Dog's latest production, which daringly places Williams' landmark memory play in a three-ring context. Without changing one word of the text, Kitchen Dog member Tina Parker directs Day, Shelly Tharp as crippled sister Laura, Tharp's real life mother, Mary Tharp, as demented Southern Ms. Manners Amanda, and Bill Lengfelder as The Gentleman Caller in a tragicomic reimagining of a beloved classic--replete with clown makeup, knife-throwing, acrobatics, and other circus flourishes.

"Tennessee Williams once wrote that he wanted to take the kitchen sink out of the theater with The Glass Menagerie and make it a dream play," Day says. "But most productions have been very naturalistic. When we talked about the new elements Tina wanted to add, we decided that the circus is very apt. There's something very poignant, even pathetic about circus performers, especially clowns. They're trapped in their roles as performers. We also added some freak-show overtones."

Although some might consider it a wild stretch to stage one of the American theater's most famously tortured families underneath the Big Top, the more you discuss it with Day and director Tina Parker, the more this interpretation begins to make "alarming sense," as Parker puts it.

"I directed this show in a student class at SMU seven years ago," Parker says. "And that's when the floodgates opened up about the whole circus thing. The production notes describe Laura's theme music as circus music. Tom is both a ringmaster and an escape artist of his family; Laura and Amanda are both sad clowns, and they're part of the freak riff, too. They get worse when The Gentleman Caller arrives, who has to be an acrobat dealing with them. At the time my teachers asked me, 'Can you justify this idea throughout a production?'"

Parker is certainly giving it her best shot with this bold, stylized theatrical variation on a play everyone thought had been pretty much defined. Set construction is under way right now to build the various sideshows that The Glass Menagerie has become while staying in the Kitchen Dog house at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Dan Day describes the show as Tina's "passionate vision."

"Kitchen Dog shows are usually collaborative efforts," Day says. "And we actors did have a say in this one. But ultimately, this one is Tina's. We just said, 'We'll trust you, babe, and see what happens on opening night.'"

The Glass Menagerie opens Saturday, May 2 and runs through June 7. Call (214) 953-1055.


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