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Undead heads

The small, about-to-be-homeless company known as Teatro Dallas makes art that falls through the cracks between contemporary entertainment boundaries, not to mention the Dallas theater scene. Are they too Latino, or not Latino enough? Should they be concentrating on folklorico rather than premiering political and philosophical voices from Latin American countries? Does their mix of high poetry, often stylized and expressionistic acting, and feverish depictions of violence and sexuality doom them to a small audience in a city whose Anglo and Hispanic populations are traditionally perceived to be unadventurous?

The answer, from this corner, is an echoing nunca! Consider the Undermain Theatre, which through some combination of perseverance, luck, and romancing the right pocketbooks, has built a core audience, and their work is the closest comparison I can think of to what Teatro does--both use theatrical extremes to refract and distort and mystify the human experience so we will recognize just how strange, beautiful, and savage what we live with every day really is.

Teatro, of course, has a core audience too, and reliable moneymakers in their arsenal--their annual fall Day of the Dead and International Festival shows. But because many of their artists are Latino, and because a chunk of their grant money from city and national resources is apportioned for their "multicultural" efforts, they will be saddled with expectations to speak for the group. When they don't, some people turn away, confused or disappointed. And though Teatro's accent is heavy and its perspective shaped by cultural experiences, this company has as its soul the conscience of the individual, shorn of the wiry outer fur that herd membership seems to grow.

The title of their 1998 Day of the Dead show, Howling at the Moon, might suggest that they've donned some pretty heavy werewolf pelts to give you the heebie-jeebies. The horrors in this fast-paced, beautifully written, and commandingly performed five-play collection are not the gotcha! kind Teatro delivered in its marvelous 1996 Night of the Chupacabras--there are no real screams here. Last year's Day of the Dead performance, Lamia, was a deeply disappointing show about a family curse that burned for too long on the fumes of atmosphere alone and flickered out before curtain. Howling at the Moon combines the eeriness of that play with the urgency of Night of the Chupacabras and adds a nutritional third layer of lyrical musings about the pre-Columbian notion of life and death being, essentially, the same thing. The deeper you plunge your fork into this confection, the more exotic, rich, and satisfying the flavors get.

It's important to note that the first three "plays" in the program, all directed by Christina Vela, are really skits: Teatro artistic director Cora Cardona adapted them herself, and she told Dallas Morning News critic Tom Sime, "If you blink, you miss them." I wasn't prepared for how true this was, and was a bit uncertain when one ended and the next began. Afterward I savored their Night Gallery-E.C. Comics, setup-punch-line approach to the supernatural. Alfredo Cardona Pena's Camellia concerns a little girl (Tess O'Leary) run amok in a funeral home; Alba, based on a radio story of unknown origin, features a woman (Karla Gonzalez) whose dreams are haunted by images of the same abandoned house; The Wall follows the fate of newlyweds (Susanna Guzman and Frank Mendez) who can't be helped by their grim housekeeper (Francis Munoz).

These three are really just appetizers for the evening's two main courses. Elena Garro's Solid Home, directed by Cora Cardona, doesn't have any twists and turns to speak of--when this one-act begins, we understand immediately that its setting is a family crypt occupied by several generations of the same argumentative clan. Ironically, the veteran in this damp, stony refuge is a little girl named Catita (Veronica Escamilla) who died a long time ago. "Diptheria brought me here," she says by way of explanation, making the disease sound like a guardian or a chaperone. "She has fingers like cotton."

On the other end of the age spectrum is Jesusita (Christina Vela), an 80-year-old complainer who's forever horrified at the ugly nightgown she was buried in. She is also Catita's sister, having lived the full life that was denied her sibling. In between them is the fatally practical Gertrudis (Francis Munoz), who has accepted over the decades that the heaven her Roman Catholic faith promised her in life has actually proven to be a long stay in death. The group awaits the arrival of Lidia (Susanna Guzman) so that they may, as a complete family, graduate from death back to life--not as themselves, but as, essentially, atomic particles of the living, the very substance of life itself.

Cora Cardona's direction of Michel de Ghelderode's Strange Rider begins on a sinuously scary note with Dallas dance artist Jennifer Olsen from the Ground Level Dance Company doing a slow, slinky dance in a skeleton costume that manages to be erotic and threatening at the same time. The way she writhes on the floor, then hops up and thrusts her death mask toward the audience, you're half afraid she's going to pounce and suck the life out of some unprepared audience member right in front of your eyes.  

Then along comes Strange Rider itself, for me the best of the bunch. It addresses something you rarely see on the stage, or anywhere else--how the very old can be very foolish and very selfish. Set in the geriatric ward of a hospital among a group of doddering, trembling, but determinedly alive old people, the play finds these complacent curmudgeons rocked by a dream from The Watchman (Mark Odell), who informs them that Death, with a headdress of peacock feathers, is approaching from a distance to take them. They don't believe him at first, thinking that if they've lasted this long, they're in it for eternity. Then the truth of his words sets in, and they begin to bargain and finally cling to him for protection from the equestrienne.

Cardona directs the able ensemble, whose average age is maybe 30, into some funny, detailed, on-target characterizations of seniorhood. Suffused with lovely imagery and a mounting sense of menace, and closing with a truly perverse (though unseen) twist of fate, Strange Rider is the boldest declaration in this show of how North American obsession with individualism is profoundly spooked by that Pre-Columbian sense of the wheels of life and death turning no matter who you are or how much you've accomplished. Maybe scarier to a contemporary American than the notion that there's nothing after death is the idea that life will continue without our precious identity, that we're just fodder for the great cycle. Or, as one of the characters phrases it, "Isn't it frightening to become all things?"

Boo!

Howling at the Moon runs through October 31. Call (214) 741-1135.

Banter
Twenty-five-year-old Dallas actor Bryan Matthews is a staff member at Dallas Children's Theater and an improv and musical theater instructor. Local theatergoers may remember him for his roles in two very successful recent shows--Circle Theatre's Sordid Lives and Teatro Dallas' The Incredible and Sad Story of the Candid Erendira and Her Soulless Grandmother. Matthews has taken the first few steps toward what he calls a lifelong dream: operating his own theater.

"I wanted something that was my own, something I could be proud of," he says, "but that wouldn't cost me an arm and a leg."

New Awakenings Theater Project is his first for-profit venture, and the Bath House Cultural Center is staging and co-sponsoring its maiden voyage, Stepping Stones. Matthews wrote and has a small role in this show, which, much like Aaron Ginsburg's recent Strait Jacket and Tie, is a dark comedy about a group of college guys who discover some unpleasant things about adulthood.

"I studied finance at a Baptist university in Oklahoma while I did theater," Matthews says with a laugh. "It was a strictly religious school. If you didn't go to chapel when you were supposed to, you were put on chapel probation. I think I was on chapel probation since the first semester."

Stepping Stones is also set at a religious school in Oklahoma, just one more detail in what Matthews admits is a "completely autobiographical play." The protagonist goes into a downward spiral of drinking and drugs when his long-distance family is torn apart and scattered after a particularly unpleasant revelation.

"It's not as solemn a play as it sounds," Matthews says. "I try to give the material a comedic twist. It's about one young man who's always relied on his family, and suddenly they're broken and calling him up saying things like 'I want to kill myself' and 'I think we need to institutionalize mom.'"

Matthews, who's only been out of college three years, started writing his play after reading about the lives of Savion Glover and George Wolfe in a playbill for the New York production of Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk. He had loved theater since he was a kid, had long been involved in it in some capacity, and decided to make his first script autobiographical because his college experiences were transforming in ways he would never have expected. He took Stepping Stones to the Bath House's theater guy, David Fisher, and they agreed to mount it. The show is directed by Craig Lee and features a cast of college theater students from TCU and UTA.

Asked how comfortable he is about being onstage while a painful part of his recent past is reenacted--albeit mostly for laughs--for an audience of strangers, Matthews admits, "It's not the general audience I'm worried about. It's my family. My mother plans to attend the first weekend, and my father is coming the second. They know what it's about. I just want them to know that I wrote this to rise above it, and that, really, through this play, I'm trying to reach out to them."  

Stepping Stones runs through October 17. Call (214) 670-8749.


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