Lightning does so too strike twice in the same place. It’s happened before at UCSD, and what’s more, the impacts were nine years apart. Two plays – Lynx Performance Theatre’s 2005 turn at Karen Hartman’s Gum and the other Teatro Máscara Mágica’s very recent attempt at Missa Azteca: a Prophetic Journey – were canceled after so-called artistic differences and contract issues were brought to bear. Both plays had been set for production at what’s now the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre.
Save those to the egos, no injuries were reported in either instance.
The difference is that Gum didn’t come equipped with a plan B, and the venue stayed dark. Mágica, in residence under the auspices of La Jolla Playhouse, found the wherewithal to forge ahead – what you get is Max Branscomb’s Journey of the Skeletons, centered on the Mexican-American celebration of El Dia de los Muertos (“the Day of the Dead”), with a big dose of Aztec history as backdrop. The show is heavily reliant on spectacle and light on characterization, which weighed in favor of the three-week rehearsal time – and although this piece is more appropriate for later in the year (the actual Day of the Dead falls on Nov. 2), helmer and Mágica artistic director Bill Virchis can take a heavy dose of credit for an enjoyable piece about cultural cohabitation, the pre-designed sets and costumes notwithstanding.
The set-up involves a Mexican-American family preparing for the day’s central event – the return from the otherworld of the grandfather, who died five years ago and whose altar the family has peppered with his favorite stuff, like fishing gear and baseball cards. The family represents three generations, each predictably more assimilated into American culture than the one before it (“Halloween with Spanish subtitles,” say the teens of the holiday).
Unbeknownst to them, death (which the Azteca clan asserts it doesn’t fear) is unfolding just below. Gramps has two friends in tow (one white, one black), and he shows his healthy respect for biculturalism by inviting his buds along on the trip back to reality for the evening. Mictlantecuhtli, lord of the underworld, won’t hear of it – but obstacle after obstacle are no match for this trio, who make it out of the underworld to reunite with the earthers and while away a perfectly wonderful holiday. Meanwhile, the teens learn a lot about the Mexican angle to the holiday – and even as their grandmother fears that she (and the culture) will be lost amid youthful Anglicized lives, the young ones assure her that the preservation of the holiday is safe with them.
It’s a tidy little ending, told with a predictable flare (Sandy Scheller’s outerwear designs are terrific, and John Iacovelli’s nuanced set carries nice little touches to convey the otherworldly climate). San Diegan Branscomb, a Southwestern College journalism professor, has told the story simply and straightforwardly even as his zany bedlam ensues below, but his initial dialogue tends to contrive its questions and answers. And as colorful as they may be (they sure are), the electronic projections to the rear overstate the obvious.
But it sure was good to see Rhys Greene again, this time as Marcellus, grandfather Memo’s (Bryant Hernandez) black buddy. Timothy Paul Evans’ Kenny completes the unsuspecting trio, with each actor cleverly taking his physical cues from the other. Grandmother Fevronia (Elisa Gonzales) nicely projects a worry that the legendary Azteca bravery is lost forever. Ximena (Mariel Higuera) and Rolando (Ken Raphael Gándola) Fevronia’s daughter and son-in-law, are upstanding representatives of both cultures, while grandkids Fernando (John Lopez) and Angelica (Natalee Nordfelt or Alyssia Montesdeoca, depending on the date) are readably assimilated. Macedonia Artega Jr.’s Colmillos, Mictlantecuhtli’s hapless jaguar, is amusing in his meaty role, and the dancers and wood flutes fuel the sense of the macabre.
There’s a lot about cultural dualism here, and the way the message is conveyed makes a lot of sense. The minimal rehearsal time doesn’t seem to have hurt this cast and staff – after all, around Mictlantecuhtli’s parts, time is a whole different thing.
This review is based on the performance of June 15. Journey of the Skeletons runs through June 22 at the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre on the UCSD campus. $10-$20. 800-838-3006, brownpapertickets.com/event/616709.