Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Woman on Fire
Camino Real Productions / National Hispanic Cultural Center
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Wally's recent review of The Best Man


Alicia Lueras Maldonado and
Meggan Gomez

Photo by Max Woltman
When I read Sophocles' Antigone in college, I thought: What's the big deal whether she buries her dead brother or not? Dead is dead, and what difference does it make if his corpse rots above ground or below ground? But I was too young then to understand that human consciousness is only partly rational, and human behavior is informed not merely by reason but by tradition, religion, superstition, and feelings that are bred in the bone, not in the brain.

Antigone is the taking-off point for Woman on Fire, a new play by Marisela Treviño Orta being given its world premiere at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in a co-production with Camino Real Productions. Camino Real has produced one or two shows a year, all by Latina/Latino playwrights, for quite a few years. This is one of the best scripts they have done.

The "woman on fire" is Paola, who tried to escape bullets and brutality at home in some Latin American country by hiring a coyote to smuggle her into the United States. She and her brother find themselves abandoned in the southern Arizona desert, dehydrated and starving. The brother dies first, she buries him, and then broils to death over three days, but there is no one to bury her. Her ghost, drawn by the scent of marigolds, the flowers of death, finds its way to Juanita in a nearby Arizona town. Paola's ghost begs Juanita to go into the desert and bury her; until that happens, she is stuck in an intermediate plane of existence.

Juanita, born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, has moved here recently because it is the hometown of her Anglo husband Jared. The play takes place in 2002, a year after 9/11, when the whole country lives in fear of another terrorist attack, and Jared has joined the border patrol to protect us from invasion from the south. (Even though 14 years have gone by since then, we still hear the same story today, don't we?)

The fourth character in the play is Juanita's older sister Araceli, whom Juanita has called to help her exorcise the ghost from her home. Treviño Orta was savvy in creating this character: she's a highly educated university professor yet she shows up with holy water, votive candles, sage for burning, and other accoutrements for the exorcism; she sweeps the door frame with a broom to cure the susto (a spirit attack); and she is obsessed with skin tone (she being darker complected, and Juanita being a guera, almost white). You might say she embodies contradiction; but in that, she embodies humanness.

The plot is not as important in this play as the conflicts between and within the characters. As for the play itself, there is one wonderful stylistic device: a conversation between Juanita and Jared is played with the ghost silently moving around the stage, and then the exact same scene is played later on with only the ghost speaking and Juanita and Jared acting in pantomime. The play moves along pretty fluently, but there are two monologues in the second act, in which Jared and Juanita separately recount to the audience how they met on the beach in Texas, that I found unnecessary and out of keeping with the realism (if a play with a ghost can be called realistic) of the rest of the play.

Valli Marie Rivera has done a mostly effective job directing a play that no one has directed before. The only thing I didn't care for was the ghost's overly sinuous arm movements and crawling around on the floor; sometimes a simple silent stare can be more chilling than stagy effects. Speaking of effects, this production is much more tech heavy than I expected it to be. The sound design by Casey Mraz and lighting by Joseph Wasson are both excellent. The set by Richard Hess is fine, with a fully stocked refrigerator, and the video projections by Peter Gabriel Lisignoli are good, especially the final images. (However, I don't know why the most frequent projection is of leafless tree branches when we're in the Arizona desert.) The creepy paintings were done by Michael Ellis, who plays Jared.

As for the cast, it's tough when the actors have significantly different levels of experience, because one or two will outshine the others. Diane Villegas (Araceli) is terrific, totally at home on the stage, whereas Meggan Gomez (Juanita), by comparison, seems like she hasn't spent a lot of time in the footlights yet (although she got a lot better as the play progressed at the performance I saw). Michael Ellis is saddled with a couple of difficult emotional scenes and he handles them more than competently. Alicia Lueras Maldonado as Paola's ghost has one of those expressive faces that don't need a lot of dialogue to get their pain across to the audience.

I think this play, with a few adjustments, can go places. It should have a life at least in the border states, especially leading up to Dia de los Muertos, but its future should not be limited by geography or the calendar.

Woman on Fire by Marisela Treviño Orta is being presented in a world premiere co-production of Camino Real Productions and the National Hispanic Cultural Center. At the National Hispanic Cultural Center, 1701 4th St SW, Albuquerque, through October 16, 2016. Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 2:00. Tickets $15 to $18, but $10 on Thursdays. For more information, visit www.nhccnm.org.


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