Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of The Prince of Egypt
Rebecca Martinez (with help from the Milagro Ensemble) creates this scenario as the opening of her 2015 play, La Muerte Baila (The Death Dance), now in a rousing, high-energy production by Teatro Visión of San Jose. Staged in Spanish, supertitles are available for those in need of English translation. As introduced by the play's director Rodrigo García, the play is about "love, forgiveness, and the power of community." (Senior García is also the Artistic Director of the Teatro Visión, a company that is "rooted in Chicanx and Latinx experiences to inspire the people of Santa Clara Valley and beyond to feel, think, and act to create a better world.") Certainly the enthusiastic, packed house the night I attended at the School of Arts and Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza were voting their approval of the company's mission, a crowd that included scores of college students from several area campuses.
As the dawning of the Day of the Dead approaches, La Muerte guides into this nether world one Alejandro, a young man whose handsome, youthful features shine through his newly whitened face of the dead. The first task is to help him stand as a newborn skeleton. Some of the night's biggest audience laughter comes as Ugho Badú's rubbery legs, arms and torso slip, slide, and constantly collapse as other members of the underworld try to help him to assume an upright position. But even as he performs an act any circus clown would envy, there is something disorienting and disturbing about this young newcomer. He clearly is confused about where he is (and perhaps why he is there), but he also seems increasingly hesitant and even scared at the prospect of joining the parade of dead souls as they venture back to earth for one day. When it turns out something about Alejandro is blocking the entire congregation of the dead from having their much anticipated day in the sunlight, the entire community is both upset and anxious to determine the reason the young man (and thus all of them) cannot return to the earth where he was full of life only minutes prior.
As Alejandro, Ugho Badú is able to convey many emotions even with a face whose features are mostly those created in paint. Along with his new comrades for eternity, he has one favorite memory. While others remember the 19th century prairie's sun, their pet dogs last seen decades ago, or a Macarena dance party of just a few weeks ago, Alejandro longs for his mother's chicken soup. However, the scene he recalls over and again at the urging of the souls around him is troubling; and something about it may provide the answer as to why he (and they) are not allowed to return on this annual day of promised return.
As La Muerte, Sergio Dávila is Alejandro's patient, understanding mentor and guide in this new world that he finds himself in. His Death is not at all the horrible, scythe-bearing image most of us often associate with that final, unwelcome visitor who calls us to the other side. Senior Dávila's Death is humorous, caring, a good dancer, and overall the kind of friend one might want forever and ever.
Josef Martinez plays Alejandro's tio (uncle), who has preceded him in death, a man who longs for that morning cup of coffee he so misses. He, too, is sympathetic toward his sobrino (nephew); but he is also easily distracted by the big-bosomed (uh, now big-boned) Emilia (Carolina Pérez) whom he is looking to pick up with where he left off on earth in courting her and winning her now-bony hand. Maria Autrán plays Clara, a woman whose only memory is the sun on her face as she died in childbirth, while Janvier Berber-Acosta is a man named Camilo, longing for the young children he left behind. All also remember some of the dance steps and clapping accompaniment from their Latino pasts and use those to try and cheer up an increasingly depressed Alejandro.
Rounding out the cast are four Muertitas (Dead Children) who still find time in the underworld to play favorite recess games. Adelita Ozuna, Yaocihuatl Gamboa, Yasmin Rivero, and David Zamora are the most pleasant, happiest dead kids I have ever seen.
The message of Rebecca Martinez's play is, in the end, a profound one: Anyone alive still holding a grudge against someone who has passed, now is the time to forgive and let go. Rather than remember the faults and being faulted, focus on the times that were good, so seems to say the play. To get to that message, the script does wander a bit, and it probably could be a better one-act outing than the two that it is. That said, the intent of La Muerte Baila is a worthy one; this cast is a zealous, committed troupe; and the fun focus given by Teatro Visión to a culture's traditional holiday that may not be familiar to the majority of Americans makes the evening's outing well worth it.
La Muerte Baila continues through October 22, 2017, by Teatro Visión at the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Avenue, San Jose. Tickets are available at www.teatrovision.org.