Luis Valdez doesn't have the theatrical rsum of Eugene O'Neill or Sam Shepard. The writer of Zoot Suit has spent most of his professional career in the film world (you might remember La Bamba). But in Mummified Deer, his first new play in 14 years, Valdez finds common artistic ground with those writers by exhuming the bones of his family and dancing with the ghosts.
It's a striking artistic shift for Valdez. Hailed as the father of Chicano theater, Valdez's playwriting has always been politically inclined. Mummified Deer finds him pursuing a more personal agenda. The plot concerns a family on the verge of unraveling when its matriarch, Mama Chu (a blisteringly good Alma Martinez), is admitted to the hospital for what everyone fears is a cancerous tumor in her womb. It turns out the tumor isn't a tumor—it's something Mama Chu has been carrying inside herself for some 60 years. Since anything more would give away a crucial part of the first act, let's just say that what's inside Mama Chu forces her family to confront the knowledge that its entire history has been built on lies.
The revelation prompts Mama Chu's granddaughter, Armida (an excellent Maria Candelaria), to explore her family's past. From the ritualistic world of the Yaqui Indian tribe (made famous by Carlos Castaneda) through the turbulence of the Mexican Revolution and into Depression-era Arizona, every stop along this path is replete with facts and incidents that rarely receive a footnote in the official histories.
Valdez's constant refrain is one that the film Magnolia brought into such crisp focus: the past is not dead; it is very alive and real in every one of us, especially in those who refuse to concede its great weight. This is borne out visually in Mummified Deer by the presence of a young Yaqui tribal dancer (an energetic Lakin Valdez) who serves as a chorus of sorts, ritualistically amplifying Mama Chu's delirium as she lies comatose on her hospital bed.
Valdez, a theatrical descendant of Bertolt Brecht, stylizes the action throughout to detach the viewer from what he or she is seeing, but the play remains poignant and affecting. Granted, Mummified Deer isn't perfect. The first act feels underbaked, with a great deal of information dumping. But the second act truly takes wing, reminding us in often breathtaking fashion that the personal is political.
It's theater with heart, mind and soul. If he cleans up the clunky first act, Valdez may have his finest play yet. If nothing else, it's a strong return to the arena that birthed him.
During the past six months, the Chance Theater company has staged two Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and an Agatha Christie murder mystery. But this time around, the Chance is producing something that at the very least sounds intriguing: George Herman's A Company of Wayward Saints, an allegory about a group of roving, broke commedia dell'arte performers stranded in a foreign land. In order to earn passage home, they stage a performance for a duke who gives them a four-word subject: the history of man.
As concepts go, it's not Peter Brook's The Mahabharata. But it still sounds like a kick. Commedia dell'arte, a form of improvisational physical comedy using stock characters that was created in 16th-century Italy, has a rich history; if nothing else, the play ought to feature plenty of physical acrobatics and vulgar comedy.
Sadly, there's very little fun to be had in this Company. A weakly drawn play and a bloodless production make watching a weary chore. The material attempts to say something grand and eloquent about man and life and home, but what that is is anybody's guess.
Herman didn't write a play so much as a first act filled with jokes the Marx brothers would have passed on in the 1930s. The terribly dull second act posits that there are four stages in a man's life: birth, adolescence, marriage and death. Herman forgot to mention a seemingly interminable fifth stage: sitting through dreary theater.
The acting was game but green, with only a couple of performers able to give their characters real life. The direction was hard to find. This is supposed to be a commedia dell'arte troupe acting out its plays within a play—but there was no physicality or raucous, naughty fun anywhere.
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The overall impression: three yawns and a big "So what?"
It's laudable that the people running the Chance are apparently passionate about their craft. The problem, at least from this show and two others I've seen over the past year or so, is that little of that craft makes it to the stage. One hopes there are people there who know good acting, good material and good directing—and more important, know how to execute it; otherwise, we can only expect more of this south-of-the-mediocre-border stuff.
Final thoughts on the Chance? Keep trying, but you're going to have to be demonstrably better to get these cuddly ass-halves back out to your cozy theater any time soon.
Mummified Deer at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, (619) 544-1000. Tues., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Nov. 19. $22-$38; A Company of Wayward Saints at Chance Theater, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 777-3033. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Nov. 12. $13-$15.