Working out the bugs

"The only things the United States has given the world are skyscrapers, jazz, and cocktails" is a quote attributed to the martyred Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. "And they make better cocktails in Cuba." This assessment was made after a two-year stay in New York City, during which his most surrealistic collection, Poet in New York, was written. Lorca was fiercely in love with flamenco music and movement, as well as the rituals of the living dead in his native Spain, enough so that the secular materialism of the United States in the '20s must have really chafed his ass. He was also, unfortunately, an outspoken critic of Catholicism and nationalism when it fermented into the drunken bullying of fascism; General Franco's hoods killed him on a moonless night in 1936, so the story goes, and dumped him in an unmarked grave. They wanted the murder of the then famously gay Lorca to look like rough trade turned fatal.

Despite the best intentions of English fans, there is something lost in the translation of Lorca's work -- interpretations of the delicate, rarefied, symbol-laden dialogue in his plays. Blood Wedding and The House of Bernada Alba are his most famous stateside works, probably because they're as much about class and gender conflicts -- identity issues that have been brewing in U.S. literature since the founding of New England -- as they are about cruel fate rendered in the poetic turn of phrase. With those plays, Americans don't have to embrace a different frame of mind -- the intersection of psychology and nature that's somewhere between drug hallucination and paganism -- the way they would with a very early piece like The Butterfly's Evil Spell, which was originally intended as a long poem.

In the hopes of better understanding Lorca's more ethereal works, there are three approaches we can take: 1. We must put ourselves in a sufficiently child-like state of mind to experience the author's fanciful tragedies; 2. We must pray that although we may not comprehend every aspect of the dialogue, we can appreciate the overall effect of our exposure to it and to another culture's canon; or 3. We must hope that a director has the confidence and clarity to seize the piece's dramatic core, place it on the tracks, and not let the actors be spirited away by all its flowery reveries.

Unfortunately, the Our Endeavors production of The Butterfly's Evil Spell at Deep Ellum Center for the Arts spills over with superficial, confused takes on Lorca's conceits. It's not really correct to call this show pretentious, because director John Flores seems mindful of all the pretty poesy and, more important, smart enough to realize that audiences will likely bolt if he lets the actors wax too whimsical. He attempts to touch up the evening with alternating flourishes of sarcasm and camp. But he generally guides the performers to err too much in either direction -- sometimes the very same actor is overly ponderous in one scene, overly glib and urban-comical in the other. (Lorca's poetry should not, I have learned from this show, be delivered in a "punch line" tone of voice.) With actors struggling so often to find the right (or, at least, a consistent) tone, the audience wound up sitting silently when they were supposed to laugh and giggling at an awkward handling of a serious moment.

As the play opens with live flute, piano, and vocal accompaniment, we are warned by Lorca himself (Frank Mendez) to be careful about leaving books of poetry lying around outside. An open tome has infected an already troubled young Boy Beetle (Newton Pittman, who manages to make a moving, eloquent impression of need throughout the show). He is already whispering sweet nothings to a graven image of the love he longs for, and she doesn't look anything like Sylvia (a peevish Lainie Simonton, in the show's next-best performance), the beetle who wants his gold ring on her feeler. A wicked Scorpion (an irritatingly attention-hungry Marco Rodriguez, whose antics almost ruin a cool three-man scorpion suit designed and co-operated by David Goodwin) and a meddling Witch Beetle (Cristela Carrizales) intercede when the Boy Beetle falls in love with a wounded butterfly (Anna Brownsted) who collapses into the care of the beetle population.

Director John Flores, although still very young, has received considerable theatrical experience from working under Cora Cardona, artistic director of Teatro Dallas. Her influence is all over this production, but her ability to portray beauty and terror without irony isn't: With just enough conviction and knowledge of Latino tragedy to walk us up to the edge of melodrama, she dangles us over that hungry black pit but doesn't let go of our hand. She can direct Lorca while blindfolded and straitjacketed, because the rapid heartbeat of the material is so well synchronized with her own. What seems feverish and presentational in a Teatro show, perhaps compared with more realistic productions, is wholly consistent, self-evident, and assured: a slice of hyper-reality that, at its best, seems more real than reality, just because it's so souped-up and refuses to shrink from skepticism. There is a timidity underneath all the indecisiveness, the attempts at humor and sorrow in Our Endeavors' The Butterfly's Evil Spell, that is just as deadly to this lyrical material as poetry is to the mundane regimen of its insect characters.

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Jimmy Fowler