Dia De Los Muertos
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 17, 2011
When I was in school, the only revolutions I learned about were the American, the French, and the Industrial. Important conflicts like the Mexican and Irish Revolutions—both of which transpired early in the last century, around the time of World War I—were overlooked by the textbooks I used.
So thank goodness for Core Creative Productions and Teatro La Tea who are focusing on these significant historical events in the new play Dia de Los Muertos. It's a fascinating, remarkable work, with text by Anthony P. Pennino and Spanish translations by Javier E. Gomez; under the direction of Alberto Bonilla (who also plays a leading role in the production) this is as exciting and challenging a work of theatre as anything available in NYC right now. One particularly distinguishing characteristic is that it's authentically bilingual, which is to say that about half of it is spoken in English and half in Spanish, with no method of translation provided for folks (like me) who are only fluent in one of those languages. Rather than making the play inaccessible, I think this makes it more valuable—not only does it remind us how it feels to not understand everything that's being said around you (as many of the characters here would be feeling), but it pushes us to lean forward and immerse ourselves in all of the nonverbal cues happening on stage to keep up with the story.
And what a terrific story it is! Gathering threads from early 20th century history and sources as diverse as spaghetti westerns and Latin American magic realism, Pennino sets his tale in Mexico in 1916, beginning in a small town where a pair of brothers, Pablo and Pedro, are among the wealthiest land owners. Pablo is a doctor, dedicated to healing the sick. Pedro is a businessman. Around them, Mexico is embroiled in civil war, with Villa and Zapata leading the charge against the entrenched aristocracy. (Both of these historical figures appear briefly in Pennino's script.)
Things heat up with the arrival of two visitors, Callum and Devlyn, a brother and sister from Ireland. They say they've brought the remains of Pedro and Pablo's uncle to be buried in his hometown in Mexico. I don't want to give too much away (for Pennino's plot is loaded with twists and turns), but these two are not what they seem at first sight, and their involvement with Pablo and Pedro changes all of their lives forever.
In addition to the Mexican revolutionaries, American writer Ambrose Bierce turns up in the play. There's song and poetry in at least three languages, and in keeping with the title (which translates, as you probably realize, to "Day of the Dead"), souls of the departed mingle freely with bodies of the living.
Bonilla has given the piece a fine production, with a spare but functional set (uncredited) and effective lighting by Alex Moore. Bonilla has also provided a number of lively fight sequences (including one featuring whips). In the role of Pablo, he heads a cast of a dozen excellent actors, most of whom take multiple roles as the epic story unfolds. Elizabeth Inghram's Devlyn is a splendidly feisty, grounded heroine, and she, along with Ydaiber Orozco, Adyana de la Torre, Eevin Hartsough, and Maria Stamenkovic Herranz, get some nifty opportunities to show off her fighting skills as well, for Bonilla and Pennino do not limit the action sequences to just the men. Translator Gomez, Michael Poignand, Alexander Stine, Robert C. Raicch, Robert Wesley Brown, and Ariel Bonilla complete the expert ensemble.
All contribute mightily to a theatre experience that is singularly exhilarating and intellectually stimulating. It's highly recommended.