Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Our time spent in that "uncanny valley," between disbelief and the suspension thereof, seems fairly short in this new staging of Alvaro Saar Rios' 2015 play at Fontbonne University, by Theatre Nuevo in cooperation with Mustard Seed Theatre. Luchadora! is a memory piece, looking back upon a mysterious, distant father and an adoring teenaged daughter. But at first it didn't seem like it was going to turn into anything at all, other than a bunch of 20-something actors playing teenagers (or younger), and older actors playing wrestlers (which just seems redundant).
But somewhere in the first half hour, I don't know where, Luchadora! catches fire. Clearly, most of the credit goes to director Anna Skidis Vargas, in this tale of Mexican wrestling, or "lucha libra." And when the ultimate confrontation arrives at the end, it's genuinely fun and exciting. The mood of theatrical, televised wrestling comes fully alive.
"I'm watching wrestling!" you'll tell yourself, in astonishment. And then, doubly shocked, "And I'm liking it!"
Don't worry, it's our little secret. There's a much bigger, grander secret rolled out in the final climactic scene, thanks to set designer David Blake. But you'll have to go see Luchadora! to learn of that.
Twenty-something actors Thalia Cruz, Cassidy Flynn, and Ashley Skaggs are initially jarring as children in 1968. But with ingenuity, artistry and commitment, they become indelible innocents, as credible as the best actors in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee or Avenue Q. Likewise, Rahamses Galvan, as Father, develops into three-dimensionality as the play goes on; his character is plagued by secrets and terrible back pain, which are (of course) interwoven in the history of the family, in a mystery young Lupita, played by Ms. Cruz, must gradually unravel.
Luchadora! is narrated by Nana Lupita, played by the glowing Carmen Garcia, up on a balcony-like platform: she tells the story of her "coming of age" to her earnest (but also secretive) granddaughter, nicely played by Isabel Garcia. And it's not just the gradual realism of all the teenage characters that brings the play to life, it's also the steady application of serious intent, whether in the portrayal of the anguished impatience of youth, or in the iconoclasm of the self, among one's elders. Director Skidis Vargas has given them all perfect confidence, and it pays off.
Cassandra Lopez is effortlessly sensual and mysterious as the mask maker to the wrestlers, and she will later train young Lupita, a la The Karate Kid. The rising tension of staged violence helps build excitement toward the final confrontation. And when we get to that point, there's fine work by Ryan Lawson-Maeske as a ring announcer (and in other roles before that) and from Hannah Pauluhn as the neighbor girl with an inspiring, superhero-like identity of her own. Throughout the play, the evil nemesis of Lupita's secretive family of wrestlers, played with ferocity by Carl Overly, Jr., seems to lower doom upon them all, one by one.
Luchadora!, through June 17, 2018, at the black box theater at the south end of Fontbonne University. For more information visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com.