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Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya's fictionalized account of his own boyhood in the small town of Guadalupe during the late 1940s, stands as one of New Mexico's most treasured literary works. First published in 1972, and widely read since by students of literature of all ages, the novel introduced New Mexico's distinctive hispano cultural traditions to readers the world over and has made its heroine—the folk healer Ultima—an iconic figure in the hearts and imaginations of New Mexicans and non-New Mexicans alike. Little surprise, then, that the first authorized theatrical adaptation of the work (dramatized by the author Rudolfo Anaya himself) has been greeted so enthusiastically by New Mexico audiences. The production first enjoyed a triumphant, sold-out run at Albuquerque's Vortex Theatre earlier this year and, most recently, a multiple-city tour brought a revival of that earlier production to thousands of spectators in more than five cities across the state. (Coincidentally, during the tour, the first feature film version of Anaya's novel, featuring the legendary Puerto Rican actress Miriam Colón in the title role, began filming in and just north of Santa Fe.) The recent theatrical tour, presented as part of a producing partnership between the Vortex Theatre and the National Hispanic Cultural Center, also returned the stage version of Bless Me, Ultima to capacity crowds at NHCC's Albuquerque Journal Theatre for another weekend of performances.

Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of Antonio, a boy of about six, living in a small New Mexico town at the end of World War II. In a few quick months, Antonio witnesses several deaths—both accidental and deliberate—and, through it all, relies upon his great aunt Ultima to guide him through. Ultima is a renowned curandera, a traditional folk healer gifted with the capacity to discern and protect her community from threatening spirits. The narrative touches on myriad other themes—generational upheaval subsequent the displacements of World War II, interfamilial conflicts over scant economic resources, irreverent lessons learned in Catholic school—but, at root, Bless Me, Ultima is a story of love and loss, in which a Antonio begins to understand his place in the world through the mentorship of his beloved Ultima.

Anaya's theatrical adaptation of his novel adopts the mode of a memory play to recount not only the lessons learned by Antonio, the boy, but also their impact on Tony, the man. As the play begins, we see a character the program identifies as Author (portrayed effectively in the touring production by Angelo Jaramillo) sitting at a typewriter, struggling to write. A woman wearing simple black arrives before him and, with a sweeping gesture, beckons him to begin. Much to his surprise, the events of his boyhood unfold in his memory—and before our eyes—on the stage. As the boy Antonio (played alternately by Ethan Iha and Diego Chavez) witnesses a murder or meets Ultima for the first time or listens to his parents bicker about his future, the Author relives the experience.

Throughout, Anaya's stage adaptation balances cinematic and theatrical techniques in ways that hew, often assiduously, to the narrative structure of the novel. Indeed, the adaptation at times appears to presume the audience's familiarity with the source material, occasionally at the expense of dramatic clarity. Most laughs are laughs of cultural recognition, and the characters are welcomed by appreciative audiences as familiar figures. The production invites the audience to remember their reading of the novel, alongside the Author who is remembering the events from his own life. (This would seem to present a challenge to audiences unfamiliar with the book, but seemed only a nominal impediment for both of the generally enthusiastic audiences with whom I saw the production.)

The adaptation's flashback structure also invites a cinematic presentational style, and the production—as directed by a masterful Vallie Marie Rivera with dramaturgical contributions by David Richard Jones—amplifies the cinematic aspects of the play's dramatic structure through the projection of both literal and expressionistic images (developed by Rudy J. Miera). At the same time, a soundscape—provided live by a trio of musicians who blend in and out as characters in the cast—underscores onstage events in stirring, ambient counterpoint. Aerial apparatus work (choreographed by Debra Landau for the piece's most magical presences, Owl and La Muerte) adds a sweeping theatricality to the proceedings. Leonard Madrid's versatile set sustains the action with admirable dexterity and Lila Elena Martinez's costumes convey period and character with evocative efficiency. The tour's technical team, led by Brian McNamara and Josh Bien, implement the myriad details of this touring production with impressive precision.

The performers approach their roles with a comparably respectful verve. Angelo Jaramillo (as the Author) is a clarifying presence throughout, and Ethan Iha (as Antonio) delivers an emotionally focused performance. (The moment when the Author and Antonio join together to remember in the play's penultimate moment is perhaps the adaptation's most powerful.) The deceptively subtle Ruben Miller is excellent in the role of Antonio's father and Alicia Lueras Maldonado contributes a warm and captivating spirit as Antonio's mother. Longtime Anaya collaborator Oscar Rodriguez infuses an ominous presence in the pivotal role of Tenorio Trementina. Standouts among the twenty one member performing ensemble include Ed Chavez in an assortment of roles, young Tommy Roman in the comedic role of Horse, and the ineffable and utterly distinctive musician Lenore Armijo.

Yet any reflection upon Bless Me, Ultima—novel or stage play—inevitably returns to the character of Ultima. Here, Juanita Sena-Shannon's performance in the role provides this production its most clarifying and sustaining emotional force. In Sena-Shannon's hands, the role of Ultima is simultaneously a larger-than-life memory and a living, breathing woman. A native New Mexican and an experienced actress, Sena-Shannon handles the poetry of Anaya's language as though it were Shakespeare while also making every word sound as if it might have been spoken at the kitchen table. Sena-Shannon's performance is—like Ultima herself—grand and gracious, at once larger than life yet utterly humble. Sena-Shannon's Ultima also provides an emotional clarity to every scene, guiding the production to its greatest potential (just as Ultima does Tony). And when Sena-Shannon's Ultima embraces Tony, lifting him in the air at the conclusion of a heart-stirring dance, Bless Me, Ultima soars as well.

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, presented by The Vortex Theatre in a presenting partnership with the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and directed by Valli Marie Rivera, completes its tour of New Mexico cities downs with a final performance at 7:30pm on November 19, 2010, at Western New Mexico University Fine Arts Center Theatre, 1000 W. College Avenue in Silver City. $20 general admission; $20 for Mimbres Region Arts Council members; $5 for students (with ID). For ticket information, call 575-538-2505 or visit www.mimbresarts.org.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Albuquerque area

-- Brian Herrera



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