Dial the number of the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts, and a recording tells you it's no longer a working line. Step into the cavernous Commerce Street space on an upcoming weekend night, though, and you will discover the center is still very valuable in its dying gasp. Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman, the latest English premiere by Teatro Dallas, is the last phrase on its lips, and what a farewell. The experience of seeing the production is sad and stimulating, a reminder of what the city scene is losing but a reinforcement of exactly how much committed theater artists can do in a performance space that has significant drawbacks.
In her last show, The Devil's Sonata, Teatro's artistic director Cora Cardona took that jerry-rigged shoebox in the basement of the Majestic Theatre and managed to summon intoxicating theatrical effects from awkward, claustrophobic surfaces. She faces in many ways the opposite challenge with the center--how to rivet the attention with so much floating, echoing space all around--and emerges, along with her frisky cast, victorious. Some would call it a Pyrrhic victory, given that Dallas is about to lose yet another performance venue, but Cardona proves that Teatro Dallas is not near death. It's an itinerant creative entity that, having proved its mettle perambulating between revamped rehearsal rooms and high school auditoriums, deserves a resident space.
Is anyone--the city or a private patron--in a position to help? Prospective rescue parties are encouraged to take in Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman for further evidence of how Cardona, her husband and Teatro lighting artist, Jeff Hurst, and the actors they choose galvanize the well-intentioned if often plodding concept of "multiculturalism" with sex, death, wit, and lyricism. Undertaking its second production of the poet, journalist, and playwright Sabina Berman, Teatro Dallas looks at how restrictive gender roles are often rationalized and justified by history. Gina (Jacquelyn Poplar) is a smart woman living in contemporary Mexico City who--surprise!--makes really dumb decisions when it comes to romantic assignations. She is right now dallying with Adrian (Scott Latham), a married journalist who is researching and writing a book on the peasant hero of the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa. Adrian is a swaggering runt who says all the right things when he's around--problem is, he tends to disappear for weeks and months. The Pancho Villa book is something of a shared project between the two, if only because Gina has agreed to type up the material. So Villa comes between the pair of them in the form of Pocket Sandwich Theatre regular Donald McDonald, a sneering, mustachioed bandito who offers love advice, Play It Again, Sam-style, to Adrian. And what does the man who had five wives, innumerable lovers, and countless kids have to say about getting a 21st century professional woman to do what you want? Ravish her or hit her, but bring her under thumb.
The way Adrian rationalizes his own irresponsible cavorting by submerging himself cerebrally in the conquests of a legendary macho revolutionary is the burning ember that keeps the comedy glowing, especially in the second act, when his broken promises start to have consequences. Poplar, lately of the Alley Theater and Stages Rep in Houston, makes a smolderingly distracted Gina. She is shoved back and forth between Adrian and Pancho and finally into the arms of Ismael (Eliud Castillo), a man who is too outrageously unmanly--at least, in the eyes of the other two men--to deserve her. Jeff Hurst's marvelous light flourishes--from flickering campfires to bursts of lightning--sweep in at critical moments of conflict inside the characters. We eventually realize that Villa's traditional macho teachings are screwing both Gina and Adrian. Yet neither can completely reject the allure of the conqueror. There's a certain dangerous appeal in being subjugated, Sabina Berman teasingly reminds us, and that's true whether you're a woman who holds on proudly to her identity or a man who attempts to adopt someone else's.
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