Friday, May 16, 2014

'Bless Me, Ultima,' a memory play rooted in Chicano culture, travels the spirit world and the everyday one in the Southwest after World War II

The striking opening of fairy tales in a culture studied by folklorist Maria Tatar came to mind while watching Rudolfo Anaya's "Bless Me, Ultima," which opened Thursday night at the Phoenix Theatre.

Instead of "Once upon a time," one of the cultures Tatar has studied begins its traditional stories with "It was, and it was not," she told host Krista Tippett in last Sunday's broadcast of "On Being."

Tony (Gabriel Chambers) has much to learn from Ultima (Elisa Creekmur). 
The formula advises the listener to open up a wide perspective on  a story's truth. That perspective encompasses both purportedly factual narrative and elements of fantasy that lend the story its meaning and enable it to share its lessons more memorably. Thus sharing that perspective with an urban audience, this play set in rural New Mexico has some of the formal rhetoric of folklore. And instead of a long narrative arc, the folk-derived style favors vivid episodes, each with a point to make that could well have a moral attached to it.

Anaya adapted his personal story, told originally in a popular novel, for the stage. This production is the regional premiere. The influence of Ultima pervades a recollected boyhood in the evolving world of Mexican-Americans after World War II.  Ultima is a curandera, a traditional healer with deep connections to the natural world, who lived for a while with the boy's family.

The nature of her mysterious specialty — an identity as much as a vocation — places it on the cusp of "it was, and it was not."  In more mundane terms, a curandera like Ultima could be taken for a witch if her special powers are interpreted as malignant. Her aura may have much to do with  an understanding of the world not compatible with either the imported heritage of Catholicism or such secular changes as the passing of the vaquero culture of ranching and the open range.

Anaya frames his memories with an adult author's narrative, wrestling with how to represent experiences he still doesn't understand. The difficulty of the assignment was well  represented in Scot Greenwell's portrayal of Antonio.  The writer's younger self is a vivid dreamer. So he's ready to receive Ultima's blessing, both the final one she extends and so many others in the form of transmitted knowledge. His loving family has some unsettling divisions, mostly reflecting his mother's farm background in opposition to his father's ranch heritage and his dreams of establishing a ranch with his adult sons.

A narrow-minded priest keeps catechism class orderly by instilling fear.
The sons have just returned from service in the war, though two of them have not gotten farther toward home than San Francisco. They have seen horrors in Japan and aren't ready to resume civilian life at the hardscrabble level. Only Andrew has come all the way back, and makes clear to his little brother that he has no intention of hanging around following a paternal vision that seems obsolete.

Gabriel Chambers plays the juvenile author, subject to those confusions and many others.  The uneasiness with which Catholic instruction sits on Tony and his peers is detailed in three scenes: the stifling atmosphere of a catechism class, an irreverence-peppered First Communion, and a chaotic attempt to mount a kids' Nativity play. Masks are used here and in many other scenes to mimic the distancing effects of memory and to make the ensemble's ceaseless versatility easier to follow, as the cast slips in and out of one character after another.

The visual richness of Ashley Kiefer's sets and props and Laura Glover's lighting is supplemented by crucial video imagery (Zach Rosing and Ben Dobler), the variegated sound (Tom Horan) and an earth-tone set with its ghostly figures in low relief (chiefly by Jeffrey Martin). A highlight of the second act was a corrido  (Mexican folk ballad) about Billy the Kid, sung with guitar accompaniment by two cast members to Tim Brickley's catchy tune.

Performances tended to have their individuality absorbed by the energy and evocations of magic set out by the production team — all contributions under the direction of Bryan Fonseca. That absorption is not necessarily a flaw: The personages, dead or alive, that parade through Tony's consciousness play their roles in the shadow of an adult conception of his childhood.

Some of the quieter dialogues could have been better projected, as they verged on inaudibility even in the intimate confines of Phoenix's Basile stage. Gabriel Chambers' command of his lines was laudably certain, although it sometimes took on a rote tone that drained his performance of consistent authenticity.

Elise Creekmur's Ultima never lacked the authenticity or warmth needed for her role as teacher, healer and brave resister of evil. The parents — Gabriel and Maria — were feelingly portrayed by Joe Vanegas and Bridgette Richards. Ensemble members who also creditably filled named parts included A.J. Morrison, Arianne Villareal, Maria Diaz, and Kienan McCartney. Spanish and English rub shoulders throughout.

Interpreting the course of nature as the result of a curse is a liability of folk superstition, and in "Bless Me, Ultima," that tendency fatally challenges but never definitively undoes Ultima's magic or the wisdom she imparts to Tony.

It endures, Anaya's play tells us, but inevitably on the borderline of "It was, and it was not." That haunted boundary may hold more truth than a firm stance on either side of it.

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