BUÑUEL DESCENDINGBy Matt Posey
The Ochre House Theater
The 2016 Dallas Flamenco Festival
Directed by Matt Posey
Choreography – Antonio Arrebola & Delilah Muse
Scenic Designer – IZK Davies
Puppet Master – Justin Locklear
Costume Design – Flamenco Closet Creations, Furamenko Fabrications, Lunares, and Justin Locklear
Stage Manager – Kevin Grammer
Luis Buñuel - Antonio Arrebola
Jeanne Buñuel - Delilah Muse
Salvador Dali - Christopher Sykes
Federico Garcia Lorca - Ivan Jasso
Cantaor/Flautist - Alfonso Cid
Guitarrista - Calvin Hazen
Cajon/Percussionist - Bobby Fajardo
Reviewed Performance: 6/25/2016
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, and Federico García Lorca were destined to intertwine their lives through the early 20th Century. By their birth in Spain, life together in Madrid as students and later in Paris, their art was influenced by the revolutionary upheavals in Europe. They couldn’t escape the fertile grounds for expression. Buñuel, the filmmaker, grew into a time when movie technology changed from silent to sound. Dali, the painter, arrived at the end of the Dada style and beginning of surrealism. And Garcia Lorca, the poet and playwright, began his creative journey as surrealism was sweeping the Continent. It would circle the globe and take art, regardless of medium, into areas audiences could never imagine. These artists expressed the voice of the masses.
What was at the core of this expression was an overwhelming demand to change the world, to upset the status quo, to make people rethink long-held positions, to challenge social order. Of course, this was also the appeal of the new world order of politics and the appearance of communism, socialism, and fascism. The consequences were far-reaching.
In 2015, The Ochre House Theater & The Dallas Flamenco Festival brought Matthew Posey’s play, Buñuel Descending, to the stage and they have revived the popular story again this year.
The Ochre House is a small theater which puts all the stage action just feet from the audience. In this case, a bare platform contained a simple bar table and chairs and that was the set. At Ochre House, the walls throughout the theater were filled with murals representing Spanish and surrealist images. Izk Davies was scenic designer and those murals were beautiful works of art on their own, including one that actually wrapped around the ever-present Ochre House mandala, designed by Trent Richardson. The mandala and mural looked as if they had been designed together. Bravo. The image on the wall behind the stage looked like it could have been painted by Dali himself.
Lighting was very simple. Rear instruments put a dingy, low-light club-atmosphere on the stage that created shadows on the floor. At times, such as when the dancers were prominent, bright white lights filled the stage and one of them became a bright moonbeam. This almost ghostly atmosphere provided a surreal feeling around the actors.
Alfonso Cid played flute and sang in a Cantaor flamenco style, similar to middle-eastern canters singing from the minarets of mosques. In fact, Spain had close connections to Moorish culture, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it sounds similar. His flute carried soft melodies against the guitar and percussion, usually with a soulful tone that suggested suffering. It was all in Spanish, so it was hard to know what the song was actually saying. Cid gave the story a soulful, mournful atmosphere. He was joined by Calvin Hazen’s flamenco guitar. This Guitarrista, with 20-years of work in Madrid, was fantastico. His style was both smooth and exciting. His finger work was fast and precise. Hazen provided the ever-present Spanish background music and it reminded me of my early days of listening to hours of Andrés Segovia. Percussion was added by Bobby Fajardo, with a Cajon box drum and a hand drum. Given the percussive nature of flamenco and the strong beats of the dancers’ shoes, Fajardo’s beat was well-timed to enhance the music and the tapping of the boots. I especially liked that he was so deeply into the dance work that even when he wasn’t drumming, his gaze was on the dancers feet, timing their beats. When he got up and shadowed one of the dancers during her dance, it was like a marriage between his and her percussion. Flamenco of course uses a lot of handclap percussion and all the actors and musicians did this to create an exciting multi-instrument percussion.
As is often the case at Ochre House, there were puppets. Designed by Justin Locklear, these included some crow hand puppets handled by two of the actors with red head and face covers. They were well-voiced and manipulated. Later a large head with a long snake-like body appeared with the same two actor-puppeteers. In both cases, the puppets were an integral part of a dream sequence.
Costumes were created by a team of Flamenco Closet Creations, Furamenko Fabrications, Lunares, and Justin Locklear. Men’s suits were pretty plain, though styled for early 20’s Paris. Whether black, gray or brown, they were a loose-fitting, which was the style then, but this also supported their dance work. Each wore black boots with hard soles and taps that beat loudly on the floor platform. Costumes for Delilah Muse were flamenco all the way. Her first suit was a tight-fitting black body suit with a white sheer skirt and red trim. When we saw her again, she was in an elegant floor-length half-black/half-white gown with large frills on the bottom, the kind dancers hold up to show their legs while dancing. It was a show-stopper.
Luis Buñuel was played and danced by noted flamenco dancer, Antonio Arrebola. This was the story of a man faced with difficult decisions about his friends, his country, and his wife. We saw him first in a state of near-stupor as Luis wrestled with bad news from Spain. Arrebola, as actor, showed the depths of Luis’ despair. Arrebola‘s portrayal of drunkenness was believable and the inner struggle was palpable. And when he had moments of joy as Luis found something to smile about now and then, his face warmed to that joy as if it had to work through his thick brain. But Arrebola was also a dancer and choreographer. Born in Malaga himself, he’s been dancing since he was eight and it shows in his technique and passion. He was both powerful and expressive, with a body grounded to the earth, expressive arms and hands, and very fast feet. His face tended to be stoic, but occasionally a grin appeared and it lit up his face, as if in the dance he had discovered something perfect.
Delilah (Arrebola) Muse played Jeanne Buñuel, Luis’ wife. There were few lines for her to speak, but when they came, they were delivered with power and emotion. Jeanne loves Luis, but is being tugged back to Spain by the upheaval. It is her plan to leave Paris that drives Luis to his final decisions. What made her performance as an actor so good were the silences between Jeanne and Luis. It may take a married couple to find those awkward silences filled with pathos and subtext. In those moments, there seemed to be real communications between husband and wife. But Delilah Muse came to dance and that she did. As the other half of the choreography team, she brought her considerable skills in flamenco to the stage and we saw a virtuoso performance. Where Antonio was powerful and stoic in his expression, she was sultry, passionate, and expressive throughout her body. She spoke volumes about her feelings in her expressive face. It was mesmerizing watching what she might show, with sly, sultry grins, exasperated scowls, or a triumphant smile after a particular sequence.
Salvador Dali was played by Christopher Sykes. He’s the least Spanish-looking guy you can find, but did a good job as a younger Salvador. His accent was good and his understanding of the relationship between Dali and Buñuel allowed him to find that connection with Arrebola to make their relationship look real. In his relationship with Luis, Dali urged Luis to stop wasting his talent and to look at what he had in Jeanne. His part as the level-headed one in the group fit Sykes well. He was one of the puppeteers, as well, bringing levity and lightness to a heavy story. He also did a pretty nice flamenco dance, for a gringo, with Ivan Jasso, showing Dali’s close relationship with Garcia Lorca. They really were close friends.
Ivan Jasso filled out the cast as Federico Garcia Lorca. This tall, wiry actor looked quite Spanish and during that dance with Sykes, showed some of his own flamenco chops. Garcia Lorca is the main driver of the push to return to Spain to fight in the hostilities and he pushes Jeanne to go back as well. This character showed a strong Spanish nationalist view of expatriate life in Paris driven to join the fight for freedom, which meant almost certain death. Jasso was also good as the main voice of the puppet dream sequences. We heard different voices as the puppets and even the scowl and ridicule of the crows was clear. Overall we saw a breadth of emotional nuances as Federico cajoled and argued with his friends about how bad it was in Spain, as he was caught up in the sexiness of Jeanne, and how he wanted the group to stay together. I appreciated how Jasso acted through drunkenness. This was true of all the cast, but I especially appreciated the way he didn’t act drunk, but rather acted normal with impairments. It’s a special skill an actor learns, but one that is not often realistic. Jasso nuanced these scenes very realistically.
Buñuel Descending was surrealistic itself. The story line basically covered a night in Paris where Buñuel tries to recover his bearings and García Lorca tries to convince him to return to Madrid, while Dali urges him to develop his talent. When he finds his beloved wife is part of the plan, this spurs him to choose if his love for her is real. There’s no resolution, unless you know the history, but maybe a suggestion about what he chose. I like that. It’s a scant story in terms of dialog and action, but what the story did was create a structure that melded perfectly with flamenco as an expressive form.
I kept wondering how flamenco got involved with this story, other than obvious connections through Spanish culture. What I discovered was that flamenco was the language for this story. For these characters, flamenco is the language of love and passion and life. It’s the way they express anger and sadness and joy when they can’t use words. The dance in this show was spectacular, skillful, a great display of the art of flamenco. But don’t overlook the fact that, just as songs in musical theater show the emotional inner lives of characters, flamenco allowed these characters to show passionate inner lives as artists and lovers. After all, every story is a love story.
The initial shock of the surrealist movement seldom affects audiences today. The days of surprise by visual, auditory and written images are surpassed by common daily news stories. They no longer singe our deepest nerves. Yet there’s no doubt the surrealists reached into the fabric of society and affected everything we experience and take for granted. Buñuel, Dali, and García Lorca were among a select group of artists who changed the world. Whether they’re heroes or anti-heroes, their story is compelling. They were men who struggled with their world and found ways to express that through art.
Matthew Posey and his production team are artists who also struggle with the realities of a 21st Century world, with competition from a myriad of distractions, even political and war-strife. Through their expression and storytelling, we can look back and see some of the origins of the theater challenge. Like the three artists, Posey and team are affecting our lives. As Izk Davies playbill bio noted, “This little theater isn’t just a place to experience a story on stage, it’s a particular point in space & time unparalleled in the universe. A place for us to look inside of ourselves & appreciate the nuances of the hearts condition.”
THE Ochre House Theater, 825 Exposition Ave. , Dallas, Texas 75226
Plays through July 2nd
Wednesday–Saturday at 8:15PM., Saturday at 2:30PM. Tickets are $25 at the door. For information and tickets, visit www.ochrehousetheater.com or call 214-826-6273.