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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Adiós Mamá Carlota
The Stage / El Teatro Campesino
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's review of Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story


Allison F. Rich and Will Springhorn, Jr.
Photo by Dave Lepori
Forgotten moments of history often make intriguing subjects for the stage, especially when told from a slightly different perspective than one might find in the pages of a textbook or scrolling through a Wikipedia article. One of America's most celebrated and influential playwrights is Luis Valdez, the founder and artistic director of the Obie Award-winning theatre El Teatro Campesino, who understands the power of such storytelling. In his 1979 Broadway play Zoot Suit, the playwright examined two of the darkest periods of Los Angeles history: the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots. More recently, the playwright examined the troubled but inspiring World War II story of two California families—one Mexican, one Japanese—in Valley of the Heart, a 2018 joint world premiere production between his company and San Jose's The Stage.

Once again Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino partner with The Stage to premiere a play about a short, little-known period of Mexican history when Maximilian I, the younger brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, was named in 1864 by Napoleon III to be Emperor of Mexico, a country France had earlier invaded. Adiós Mamá Carlota tells this rather bizarre and ultimately tragic story—for both Mexico and Maximilian—from the perspective of the new Emperor's wife Carlota, who ruled with him for two years as Empress before escaping back to Europe where she remained apparently insane and largely in isolation for the next sixty years. Luis Valdez gives voice in Adiós Mamá Carlota to the ghosts of Carlota's memories as they come back to haunt her and retell their versions of her and her executed husband's coronation, reign and demise.

We meet Carlota, secluded in a castle in Belgium in 1924, as a hunched-over, elderly woman struggling to walk with a cane as she wanders aimlessly about in front of huge, framed pictures of herself and Maximilian in their short-lived days of former glory. From her long-crazed mind emerges in dream a young woman in a flowing skirt of glittering colors named Conchita (a snappy, sassy yet sweetly singing Jessica Osegueda) who joins other ghosts of the Empress' past in teasing laughter and snarly taunts aimed at the confused, frightened Carlota.

Opening a trunk to produce a floor-length dress for Carlota to don from near-sixty years prior, Conchita tells Carlota, "I am just a reflection of your sins." Upon that declaration, she releases a Pandora's box of the old lady's memories. The background, teasing specters come to the full light of day to begin playing out the events surrounding Carlota and Maximilian's short rule in Mexico, with Carlota now assuming her younger, more beautiful, and royally too-proud self.

As Carlota, Allison F. Rich transforms in front of our eyes from the demented, old lady tormented by her too-real dreams to the bold, power-driven young woman who has her eyes set on being a New World empress with an Old World demand for her subjects' bowing respect and instant obedience to her commands. As the story progresses from Carlota convincing her cousin Napoleon III to name her low-regarded husband as Mexican emperor to the couple's arrival to a less-than-thrilled populace, she remains ruthless, determined, and uncompromising in the regal standards she believes are her rights.

Allison F. Rich once again proves herself to be a powerhouse of an actress, easily outshining the cast around her as she swings back and forth in time periods, ages, and degrees of sanity. Her Carlota is the epitome of the European, imperialistic invader who has little to no regard for the country she now co-rules. Her biggest concern is how she retains and increases her own royal status as she tries desperately to shore up her husband as a strong leader and one worthy of others' fear and respect. She also is near frantic to bear a child who can continue the royal linage—something her husband seems to have no interest at all in doing.

Maximilian has a different vision of what it means to be Emperor than does she. He is more intrigued with Mexico's monkeys, butterflies and hummingbirds than he is in forcing its people to fear him and in turn to reject their own elected president, Benito Juárez. The more his wife tries to push him to rule with an iron fist, the more he resists and retreats to the countryside to mingle among the natives—including a youthful mistress, Pepito (Jessica Osegueda). Carlota's evaluation of her husband is that "Your tragedy is that you are easy to love but impossible to fear."

Will Springhorn, Jr. is an awkward-with-his-destiny Maximilian, bordering between a well-meaning but naïve, aristocratic royal totally out of his element as Emperor and a complete fool who believes those who say they are his friends truly are, and those who are his enemies will come around to accept him as their friend and Emperor. The actor's success in making Maximilian a believable part of history wavers, partly due to the somewhat stilted, non-varying approach he brings to the part and partly due to the script he has been given. In fact, in his first appearance when he bends down in front of a room full of people only to emit the first of repeated instances flatulence, he lets loose (so to speak) the biggest issue that I have with the production and its direction by Luis Valdez's son, Kinan Valdez.

Time and again, Adiós Mamá Carlota takes on the look and feel of Mel Brooks' version of the history of the world, with some characters being total caricatures of the real people they represent. At the same time, others play their roles more straightforward and serious as one might expect in a historical drama. There are times when the play appears to be a farce; at times, a biting satire; at times, a TV sitcom. Yet there is also an attempt for it to be a serious exploration of imperialism going amok and the role that Carlota as Empress plays in her own long and lonely ruin.

For me, the indecision of what kind of play it really is continually kept me—though totally interested in the history itself—from fully engaging with the story enough to appreciate and enjoy the farcical aspects of watching Europeans come to rule a Mexican nation who does not want/need them to truly to care about the tragedy playing out for either set of victims—the citizens of Mexico or its temporary, totally naïve rulers.

Certainly, the cast members follow script and directions to the fullest in becoming often the more preposterous renditions of the characters from history they represent, with most playing two to five different roles both European and Mexican (and even one appearance by the dead President Lincoln). Martin Rojas Dietrich is a spit-spouting, sarcastic Napoleon III who has the tongue and disposition of a viper while all the time looking and acting like a complete clown. He also is a foolishly pompous Archbishop of Mexico, a member of the upper class Don Felipe, and General Miramón, whose stead-fast loyalty to Maximilian and inaptitude as a military leader lead to the downfall of both. Estrella Esparza-Johnson plays with much aplomb the cartoonish wives, Eugenie and Manuela, to both his Napoleon and his Don Felipe, respectively.

Sean Okuniewicz ably plays with an overall serious, believable approach the Belgian soldier and eventual lover of Carlota, Alfred Van der Smissen, while also stepping in for brief stints as a painter and a rather ridiculous Franz Josef. Rounding out the cast in various roles are Edward Hightower and Noé Yaocoatl Montoya.

One of the most impressive highlights of the production is the ingenuous use of videos and projections as designed by Dante Carballo and Garland Thompson, Jr. A backdrop curtain full of variably sized, projected picture frames becomes the landscape for each of the frames to become the home of many portraits, film clips, scenic elements, and elements of surprise and eruption as the play progresses. The result is both instructive and fun to watch, adding much to the historical and emotional context of the story.

Likewise, the costumes of Madeline Berger bring authenticity to the times and regions represented and provide their own contributions to the farcical aspects the playwright and director seem to have desired. She is aided in both regards by wig designer Sharon Ridge.

Certainly upon leaving this joint world premiere of Adiós Mamá Carlota by The Stage and El Teatro Campesino, one cannot help but know much more about a small slice of Mexican, European, and even American history than probably was known previously. And while there are a number of aspects and performances of the production to admire, for me the lack of clarity of purpose by the playwright in the way the story unfolds before us left me exiting scratching my head as to what I had really just seen and why.

Adiós Mamá Carlota, through April 28, 2019, at The Stage, 490 First Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available at www.thestage.org.


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