The Bright Side of Death

The indefatigable Cora Cardona, artistic director of Teatro Dallas, has threatened on occasions when the itinerant troupe cannot find a stage to pitch a tent in a parking lot and perform there. OK, so it's not a parking lot for the 2000 edition of their annual Dia de los Muertos performance, El Circo de la Muerte (The Circus of the Dead). They did what no other homeless theater has thought to--went to Shakespeare Festival of Dallas honcho Cliff Redd and asked to rent the Samuell-Grand Park amphitheater during the off-season. I'm glad Redd agreed to work with them, and I hope Teatro and other companies can use this venue again during temperate non-summer months of the year (which, in Texas, is pretty much all of them).

Cardona and her design crew are using the stage nontraditionally: They stretched a waterproof circus tent over a metal frame and invited the audience underneath to share a conversational performance experience with the actors, dancers, magicians, and those who jump between categories. What has been sacrificed is sweep. The designated stage area is a small strip, and at no time is this more apparent than when Nova Dancing Company bends and swirls in their gauzy outfits. You believe the choreography by Loris Anthony Beckles has been somewhat constrained by the proximity of the front row. But the scope is arguably regained by the darkness of a cool autumn night pressing in all around us. As wind flutters the tent, or as rain beats down on this huddle of humans playacting and watching, with dry-ice smoke pouring and stage lights flashing and sound system blaring everything from flamenco-flavored guitar to Goth metal, the tent becomes the bubble of mortality that could be yanked away at any time and leave us all defenseless. So even though I thought that some of the movement-dependent short pieces had their creative wings clipped, the environmental vibe for a production about death was so appropriate, I could feel my blood pump excitedly from being so jacked-in to the total moment.

The wry nimbleness of El Circo de la Muerte contrasts significantly with the bloodstained ritualism and grab-your-lapels, "gotcha!" moments of past Teatro dead days--although the latter are approached when La Catrina (Mark O'Dell), a skull-faced debutante, crashes in unexpectedly with strobe lights pulsing. She made me yearn for edgier, more explicit references to the mortal coil she dons and doffs as easily as a fox fur.

There is also less of a sense of Mexican history with this celebration of memories in three-dimensional form. One of the more entertaining fellows of the evening was a top-hatted, ghoulish trickster named Bizarro who, vaudeville-style and with the aforementioned Goth rock pounding away around him, proves that eye, hand, throat, and other body parts are disposable and, at times, interchangeable. But he would seem to be only tangentially related to dead festivities.

Ditto Michael Garcia's The Downward Climb, in which the barefoot performance artist swooped and knelt and leaped seemingly unaware of the limited space around him. Garcia is a masked businessman with a briefcase who, at first, seems to get an almost mystical satisfaction from his corporate ambitions. But things don't happen as he plans, and he suddenly becomes aware of--to tie it in with the death theme--his own dying soul. Garcia has mastered a lunatic style of half-ballet, half-pratfall that makes all this funnier and less ponderous than it sounds on paper.

The most affecting piece was the evening's purest classical tragedy--The Bear, written and directed by John Flores. In it, an enslaved ursine performer (Jim Hopkins, sporting a beautiful headdress reminiscent of the costume in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast) pines with truly tortured howls under the whip of his S&M gear-bedecked master (O'Dell), until (temporary) pain relief comes in the form of a beautiful, merciful young woman (Zamor Rodriguez). Hopkins is scary and heartbreaking in a most unlikely guise--a bear costume--and when revenge is extracted, we get a big black savory taste of death that has been diluted in some of the other items on Teatro's menu.