Friday, April 22, 2016

Relying on folk memory for material, 'Leyenda' extends Phoenix Theatre's connections to the local Hispanic community

Well-known for connecting with the cutting edge of mainstream American culture, the Phoenix Theatre in "Leyenda" turns to a significant minority culture as both a resource and a target.

Written by producing artistic director Bryan Fonseca and playwright-in-residence Tom Horan, the show, which opened April 14, draws upon Hispanic folklore of the Western Hemisphere. Much of it is apparently familiar to the growing Indianapolis population that shares that heritage.

In Thursday night's performance, this material came alive in a manner that ought to draw in everyone. The stories that people tell everywhere literary self-consciousness is absent have a first-hand acquaintance with magic. But, as "Leyenda" shows in several places, the supernatural doesn't enter everyday life for entertainment, but for instruction.

The show is structured in a continuous 90-minute span, with a framework tale of the type many traditions have generated: A storyteller preserving her life and earning a monarch's love through her skills, triumphing over a history of executed predecessors whose appeal proved to be no guarantee of survival. Horan and Fonseca lay out the tales with a suspenseful break in each, to be resolved later.

The people tend to know that a broad spectrum of luck shapes lives, though cleverness is frequently useful in that effort. You have to know the limits of good fortune and not forget to be grateful.

Farmer discusses good fortune with chicken.
That is beautifully illustrated in the story of "The Emerald Lizard," when a farmer prudently uses a monk's mysterious gift — a reptile that becomes a gem — to achieve a certain level of prosperity,  but no more. A. J. Morrison plays the savvy farmer, Paeton Chavis the grumbling chicken urging him to maximize his profit. The farmer intuitively uses his surplus wealth to return an emerald to the monk in gratitude. What happens next is a moving example of "paying it
forward."

The stories take place on a set of stone benches arranged in a circle, with large diaphanous curtains suspended from the flies that are sometimes used to mark off divisions that complicate the action. Bernie Killian's set works with the warm, glowing light design of Jeffery Martin. Emily McGee's costumes — particularly a two-person, wearable Buzzard puppet and a menacing Bogeyman capable of haunting anyone's dreams — were idiomatic and visually exciting.

Keith Potts and Bridgette Richards in "Leyenda"
The script is partly in Spanish, translated from Horan's lilting English by cast member Bridgette Richards. The bilingual aspect is embedded just enough to lend the stories authenticity of sound and meaning — especially the haunting "Hearts of Fire," with choreography by Mariel Greenlee carried out with ample pathos by Morrison and Jean Arnold.

The control-freak monarch who's eventually defeated by the storyteller's courage and love got a fierce yet vulnerable portrayal by Keith Potts. All the role changes were managed smoothly, with an especially charismatic zest from Chavis. The show's humor was further underlined in Potts' performance as "the Buzzard Husband" in a tale showing the perils of laziness and the perennial desire to be something you're not meant to be.

Folk wisdom tends to emphasize the importance of knowing your place in life. But this show also stresses the freedom to imagine something better, freer, more glorious and the value of investing some emotional energy in that realm. It's charming to note how nicely balanced a sense of restraint and wishful thinking can be in tales that have survived many generations and lend themselves to such piquant theatrical retellings. "Leyenda" suggests an enchantment it does not fully own, and that's a good thing. The enchantment is free-floating and immortal.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]