LA LLORONA, A LOVE STORYBy Kathleen Anderson Culebro
Bishop Arts Theatre Center
Director – Adam Adolfo
Stage manager – Katelyn Kocher
Scenic & Lighting – Jorge Guerra
Costume Design – Nathan Scott
Jeffrey – Nolan Spinks
Liz – Janae Hatchett
Irma – Nicole Roero
Carlos – Coy Rubalcaba
Reviewed Performance: 2/8/2019
Reviewed by Mark-Brian Sonna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Growing up in Mexico I can attest that this legend was indeed a fabric of the culture. In the region of the Bajío where I grew up, La Llorona would murder the stolen children by sucking their blood out via the umbilical canal and then dispose the corpses in a nearby river. In other parts of Mexico just seeing her ghost would cause the children to die on the spot with their spirits being destroyed and thus not allowing the children entry into heaven. It was also believed that you could feel her presence approach when winds would pick up after dusk and it was believed that the howls of the wind that would soon follow were her cry, and the only safe place to be was indoors for she would never cross a home’s threshold. It didn’t matter what education level or social class one might have, this along with many daily customs in Mexico were based on superstition. As to how she came to be and who she was her genesis varies from region to region. While most versions portray her as a murderer, other versions portray her as a mother who became distracted thinking about her husband’s abandonment while her children bathed in a river only to discover that her children vanished, presumably drowned and carried off by the current. The one concurrent theme in the various narratives is that due to the loss of a child (or children) is what lead to her wailing cries.
Superstition is strongly embedded in Mexican culture regardless of the socio-economic class. In La Llorona playwright Kathleeen Anderson Culebro weaves many of these cultural behaviors as she spins a new origin story for La Llorona that is set in the 1990’s. It is a script that fascinates, and considering that as an audience we will know it will have a grim ending, it is surprisingly funny. This juxtaposition of humor and horror is brilliantly crafted because it makes the ending that much more shocking. Adam Adolfo who directed this gem of a script stages this play with much nuance. Adolfo is very much a visual director and is known for creating highly detailed and dramatic stage pictures. In La Llorona his approach is much more simplistic though equally as effective. He understands that much subtext can be conveyed by how he positions the performer’s bodies on stage. A character may be standing looking at another character sitting. With one actor looking down at the other it establishes the power differential between the characters. By seldom ever having the character of Irma sit, we know, though she’s relegated as a housewife, she has the most power. The character Liz seldom ever faces directly downstage and is quite frequently in motion while sitting or standing, but when she stands perfectly still facing the audience at the climax of the play the moment becomes quite powerful not just because of the plot, but because where she is positioned in the scene with no other character standing nearby. This minimalist staging by Adolfo is quite powerful.
The play is well illuminated by lighting & scenic designer Jorge Guerra. A wonderful light effect is created of an eye or sometimes two eyes on the back wall. What may seem like a faux pas in lighting (as in a lighting instrument wasn’t focused correctly and created this spill-over effect) it is evident that Adolfo more than likely requested this effect for he’s known to add an “error” to the stage to convey a message as he did in his most recent directorial effort of “Equus” in which he requested that horseshoes be hung upside down to convey that the main character was all out of luck. This ever knowing eye or eyes is unsettling and makes the audience fee as though the La Llorona is ever present. Guerra’s scenic design of a typical Mexico City middle class home was spot on, too. But even here there was an Adolfo touch. A small bench was placed downstage right that would force the actors to sit with their backs to the audience. This creates a visual discomfort for the audience for it is impossible to see the actors’ faces, but it was used only when the characters were experiencing discomfort. A wise choice. Adolfo knows how to trigger emotions in his audience to emphasize the drama on the stage by his blocking. He doesn’t just manipulate the characters on stage but the audience too. Brilliant.
The acting was slightly uneven. All four actors were quite competent in their characterizations. At no point were the actors’ choices incorrect. The issue is that at times they were simply too restrained. There is much passion in the dialogue, and it wasn’t always matched with the appropriate intensity. This issue would be resolved had the pace of the play been brisker. Some dialogue requires a beat between lines as the character processes the information given by the other character on stage. But other times the line delivery needed to be rapid fire to heighten the conflict, but instead we got the same rhythm from scene to scene. A director can instruct his actors to pick up the pace, but when it comes time to a performance, it is the actors that must follow through.
Nolan Spinks as Jeffrey shined in his role. In La Llorona an American couple moves to Mexico for a job and rents a home. The owners of the house, due to financial difficulties remain in the home as servants. Spinks’ portrayal of the clueless American was 100% accurate. He is bigoted without realizing it. He takes on the American superiority complex without being aware of his cultural racism. He is a fish out of water unable to understand Mexican culture. This creates many comical moments in the play and his line delivery is uproarious. This said, once he becomes self aware, the fact he chooses to maintain his bigotry becomes chilling.
Liz is Jeffrey’s wife and is played by Janae Hatchett. The character she portrays is that of a very bland suburban housewife who is confronted with a culture that is foreign to her. She is more open and accepting of Mexican customs, and will partake of them but only on her own terms. There is a myth that a pregnant woman shouldn’t stare too long at someone because their unborn child will take on the characteristics of that person. Liz decides to keep herself blindfolded most of the time once she discovers she is pregnant. Comedy ensues as she stumbles around the house blindfolded. This quirk of taking a Mexican custom and carrying it too far, while funny at first foreshadows the intense tragedy to follow. She delivers the climactic moment of the play with goose bump inducing intensity.
Irma is played with much authenticity by Nicole Romero. She is a modern day Mexico City woman. People from Mexico city are known as Chilangos. Chilangos doesn’t just refer to residents of Mexico City, but it refers to the cultural traits specific to people that inhabit the city. An example of this would be calling someone a New Yorker. Cultural stereotypes immediately come to mind. A Chilango is someone who is thought to be culturally sophisticated, urban, more educated, who thinks of themselves as above the traditional cultural norms of rural Mexico, but will partake of the traditions and superstitions by choice because of their pride in their heritage. Irma during the course of the play is pregnant and gives birth. During the course of her pregnancy she takes on some the cultural norms to insure the health of her baby not as much by fear but because of tradition. For her to then have to take on the role of a traditional Mexican servant in her own home goes against the grain of her identity as a Chilanga. Romero captures all the nuances of her character. Her distress at being forced to betray her own nature due to the economic situation she and her husband find themselves in is palpable.
Coy Rubalcaba as Carlos, Irma’s husband captured the essence of a Chilango, too. He is college educated, worldly, and trained to be an architect. Because of the financial difficulties and his lack of employment he is forced to take on a job as a waiter, a position far beneath him. As a Chilango he consciously shuns the stereotypical Mexican macho trope. But due to circumstance that machismo which he thought he had suppressed begins to bubble up. Machismo doesn’t just refer to the way men treat women, it embeds the concept of free will, pride, independence, and being confrontational. Because of financial circumstances he becomes subjugated, and this machismo surfaces in response to dire consequences. Rubalcaba captures the essence of a Chilango beautifully, where he falters is in his transition to becoming a machista: he is too restrained. This said, when he is confronted with defeat, his pain is palpable and is felt by the audience.
An area of weakness on the production side was the costuming. The play is set in the 1990’s, and while the set decoration was typical of a modern era Mexican home which was a mish mash of furniture styles from decades past that one would expect from a home that had been inherited, it was the costuming that needed to reflect the era more so than the furniture. When references to Blockbuster Video were mentioned it took me by surprise because none of the dress indicated that what we were witnessing was a period piece. While the introduction of the color red was a nice concept to reflect the ever growing passions, it was too obvious.
Should you go see La Llorona? Yes. This modern take on the genesis of the legend is wonderful. The storyline is intriguing and unexpected. I chose not to divulge much of the plot in this review because that is what makes the play so wonderful. Kathleen Anderson Culebro has spun a story that amuses, delights, surprises, and by the end terrifies.
Bishop Arts Theatre Center
Now through February 24, 2019
215 South Tyler Street, Dallas, Texas 75208-4934
Performances are Fridays at 8 PM, Saturday and Sundays at 3 PM. Tickets $18-$25. For information and tickets visit www.bishopartstheatre.org or call 214-948-0716.