From a shiver to a whimper

There were a couple of reasons why I entered Teatro Dallas' 1997 Day of the Dead show, Lamia, with high expectations. First, knowing that Teatro's autumn celebrations of the Latin American holiday El Dia De Los Muertos--a more historically rooted version of the North American Halloween--manage to scare up more money than almost any other show they do all year, I was confident that Teatro, as usual, would pull out all the stops to get the audience involved. Last year's terrifically entertaining October production, Night of the Chupacabras, used an E.C. comics-type anthology framework to wring gasps and screams out of ticketbuyers--Teatro turned an extremely old, extremely familiar Mexican folk myth into great gotcha! material.

Second, when I heard that Lamia, a script by Dallas theater veterans Christopher Nichols and Earl Bentley (they co-founded the now-long-defunct New Arts Theater in the '70s), would stir a generous dose of carnal desire into a myth far older than the Chupacabras--one that has its origins in the last days of ancient Greece--they practically had to block the theater doors with heavy furniture to keep me from crashing rehearsals. For me, it's hard to make the intertwined subjects of sex and death boring. So when I imagined artistic director Cora Cardona and her troupe bringing them from a simmer to a boil over the exaggerated romanticism of Latino theatrical styles, I prepared myself for a breast-heaving, blood-letting good time.

As it turns out, I did too much assuming. Lamia is professionally acted and gorgeously costumed, and it manages to conjure a tingling sense of funereal dread through its constant use of candlelight, its foreboding piano score that includes Andrade and Shostakovich, and the constant indication that something really heavy is about to go down. Trouble is, there's no payoff, no release for the tension that director Cardona and her cast accumulate. After straightforwardly laying out the characters and their relationships, Lamia ends abruptly and without offering us any of the surprises the script hints at.

Playwrights Nichols and Bentley, who worked to streamline their script with Cardona and Teatro's in-house playwright, Valerie Brogan, seem to lack an understanding of the rudiments of suspense. Nick Brethauer's spare, stately set design and Christina Vela Flores' lovely, ornate-but-not-gaudy costumes--especially the women's gowns--go a long way toward grounding the ancient myth of a she-devil who possesses a young woman during lovemaking, leading her to devour the male partner. The playwrights present the legend, and even update it (relatively speaking) to 1850s San Antonio, but don't channel it into a satisfying mystery that drops clues for us along the trail to some horrific climax. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein's comment about aborted creativity, Teatro Dallas has tapped the blood, but it won't pour.

The Lamia probably originated in Greek mythology as one of Zeus' numerous flings (she bore seven children for the randy god), who turned so bitter after Hera, Zeus' wife, killed her illegitimate offspring, that she began to terrorize mortals--inhabiting the bodies of young virgins and turning them into crazed, carnivorous beasts at the point of orgasm. Late 20th-century men who think an accusation of date rape is the worst they could face from a drunken after-dinner pawing, take note--the Lamia didn't need campus women's groups to exact revenge for acts of amorous domination.

In Lamia, the demoness is transplanted to prosperous 19th-century Texas ranchers of Spanish origin, the Villa-Lobos family. It's clear that the women rule this clan: Isabella (Beverly Brown) has taken over for her cheerful lame duck of a husband, Jorge (Mario Gonzalez), who, ever since a debilitating accident, has tended to end every evening in a brandy-induced fog. Brave, anxiety-ridden Isabella has taken the mantle of the family on her shoulders, including the raising of two very different nieces: prim, practical Angelica (Holly Jenkins), who's pledged to join the convent at some unspecified future date, and fun-loving younger sis Camilla (Elena Hurst), who's apparently pledged to flirt with every man in San Antonio.

The play begins at Camilla's coming-of-age birthday celebration, when Isabella realizes she must take action concerning the future of the Villa-Lobos family--including deciding who will control the ranch and warning her niece Camilla about a family curse that ultimately overcame the girl's long-dead madre. That last matter seems especially pressing, since Camilla has attracted an enthusiastic paramour named Enrique (Eliud Castillo). Despite her protestations of becoming a bride of Christ, Angelica has also attracted a handsome young suitor named Jose (Carlos Arroyo). When both men are mauled to death during a nighttime rendezvous, the question becomes--is Angelica or Camilla the Lamia incarnate?

I won't reveal that here, but I will say that by the time Lamia perambulates to its smoke-filled tableau, you probably won't care. Playwrights Nichols and Bentley, and collaborators Cardona and Brogan, are egregiously lax in organizing the scavenger hunt necessary to all thrillers, the dropping of clue after red herring that keeps us trying to guess whodunnit. If it's to be satisfying, our journey through this material must be a winding one, and Lamia never considers the possibilities of its premise long enough to play with our minds. Because the playwrights refuse to manipulate us in any particular direction, any one of the female cast members in this show could be the Lamia. The choice, when she's unveiled, is an arbitrary one.

Teatro's last production, the U.S. premiere of a religious drama about sexual persecution called The Holy Inquiry, didn't need a spectress dripping blood from her fangs to scare the bejesus out of us with its depiction of carnal desire that degenerated into theological tyranny. The persecuting priest of that production, who punished the laypeople around him with torture and death because he couldn't accept his own lustful side, was a much more disturbing figure of supernatural retribution than the Lamia.

With its highly touted International Theater Festival coming in November, which features acclaimed performers from France and Venezuela, you wonder if Teatro Dallas really put all its heart into this Day of the Dead production. Lamia doesn't quite qualify as a failure--some passionate performances, notably by Beverly Brown and Holly Jenkins, and the production's coolly sinister visual style, spread the story a long way. Trouble is, you feel cheated by what, in the end, turns out to be an alarmingly polite chamber drama about lust, vengeance, and family destiny.

Lamia runs through November 2. Call 741-1135.