Review: A Revolution From The Heart 1

¡Viva La Revolución! at Miracle Theater Group/Teatro Milagro.

by Faddah Wolf

With Occupy Portland about to be evicted from the downtown Lownsdale & Chapman park squares (either peaceably or forcibly), perhaps now is the best time to take a step back and take note of lessons learned by history’s other resistors, protestor’s and revolutionaries. Local Portland Latin Performing group, the Miracle Theater Group/Teatro Milagro, has a perfect such tale with its celebration of revolutionary ancestors during Día de los Muertos, ¡Viva La Revolución!. This production plays in a way that grabs the audience, not by the head of the dialectic or complaint, but better, from the righteous, feeling heart of it all.

The Occupy Movement is, indeed, referenced in this production, as are its modern tools of foment: the internet in its various incarnations of Twitter, blogging, YouTube, etc., and personified by a young Latina, Najwa Herrera Mose, earnestly played by Nelda Reyes, visiting oppressive Middle Eastern countries, learning Arabic in a hijab, and translating the works of her favorite Las Adelita, a woman of the Mexican Revolution, the fictional Ernestina Galinda. You know: typical college kid’s summer abroad.

Copyright 2011: Russell Youn

Najwa is imprisoned by this generic Middle Eastern government tracking her web postings, on the cusp of the Arab Spring. Imprisoned on Día de los Muertos, she is given a dream vision of her ancestors — the ghostly, white-faced great, and great-great-grandparents from both sides of the Mexican Revolution, lovingly looking over their young, modern resistor, allowing her to interact with them in the period of the ten year battle to overthrow the Dictatorship.

The production takes delight in the rich culture it delivers to the audience, from the modern audience everyperson view via Reyes’ Najwa, the turn-of-the-century characters of her dead ancestors and their lives of that time, music and singing, dance, and dialogue delivered both in English and en Español (don’t worry, enough is said in both languages, plus song translations in the program, that no one gets lost — and you may wind up remembering your High School Spanish).

The Patriarch of the dead ancestors, Ludovico (Enrique E. Andrade), holds a typically firm hand over his household of this time, as did most despotic plantation owners; but, his daughter, the beautiful, intelligent firebrand Aurora (Cristina Cano), has run off to join her fellow Las Adelitas in support of the rebels and Zappatistas, and is also a fierce devotee of the writings of Galinda. Aurora, who is to become the great-grandmother of Najwa, returns armed with the traditional rifle and bullet belts to find her Father and more sympathetic Mother (Nuyrs Herrera) the same (though Ludovico privately reads and enjoys Galinda also, despite her being a “filthy Marxista!”). Aurora’s childhood friend and possible love interest, Nestor (Noah Dunham) has joined an apparent “champagne unit” of the Mexican Army, seeing no action but receiving all the status. This puts them in an immediate firing line with each other, both metaphorically & literally, as not recognizing each other at first, they almost shoot each other.

Also visiting very long term is Susan Anderson (Amber Mitchell), a very young and very activist suffragette from the U.S., sent down by her Banker Father to Ludovico, his client, as she has become too much of an inconvenience marching in rallies on the streets of New York (the Occupy Wall Street connections abound). In this, she is probably the closest resonance to the modern observer, Najwa. Also, a young servant at the house, Carmelo (Alberto Romero), harbors his own dreams, but lacks the boldness to go beyond his station to taste of them.

Director Olga Sanchez wisely limits the polemic in favor of the emotional life, the dreams, the passions and relationships that ultimately unite this family of wildly different values. Her hand with her cast is gentle yet affirming, giving forth the emotional resonance that makes the audience want to be with Najwa, interacting and falling in love with these spirits of her past. The cast ably mixes the languages, dialogue, song, and dance that spring naturally from what would be a long Día de los Muertos celebration in an afternoon and evening.

But when issues arise, they are met head on in the ardor of these characters. When defending her right to learn to shoot amongst the rebels, Nestor retorts to young Aurora —

“Bullets are real!”

“So is suffering,” she fires back.

What few reservations are found in this production come mostly from weaknesses in the script itself, which the programs say is not written, but “created by” a namesake of the theater, Martín Milagro (whether or not this is also a fictional writer, like Ernestina Galinda, remains to be seen). Nejwa’s imprisonment in the Middle East seems a bit contrived, especially when in Central America, the terror, oppression and death by drug cartels is far more real and immediate and one that is being fought on the Internet now also. Fighting drug cartels via social networking for young resistors is closer to home and terrifying: unlike even oppressive regimes, drug cartels have no obligation to any societal order but their own. Also, two entirely anachronistic songs sung by young suffragette Susan (though very well delivered), take one out of the story, if you are aware they are from 1960s musicals and country pop, not turn of the century marches or ballads. Also missing, strangely, is the rich cultural overlay of the Catholic church on this family and their culture — it is not mentioned at all, nor are any Catholic rite objects seen on their Día de los Muertos altar, as if they were already a family of Marxist atheists — very unlikely for this culture and time.

Of the performers, Andrade’s Ludovico carries easily the most necessary patriarchal gravitas with undercurrents of care; one sees in him the talented strains of a local Hector Elizondo or Edward James Olmos. Herrera’s Mother, Constanza, is a sweet and doting busybody, always ready to match her daughter with the young suitor, Nestor. One performance, by Cano’s Aurora, did fall a bit flat on occasion, because of a tendency to play a bit too off-handedly modern. This works in a fun drinking scene with Dunham’s Nestor, but more often I wanted to see more intentionally casted, smoldering looks of revolutionary passion from Aurora — more Sonia Braga or Penelope Cruz, less West Coast girl-next-door.

But these are small quandaries in a production that otherwise grabs by the heartstrings and doesn’t let go. It is important to remember that the solution in any resistance or revolution, is to first win the hearts and minds of the more general populace. And ¡Viva La Revolución! does exactly this, en la perfección. Saturday and Sunday are the two final performances for the year, and it is highly recommended to see before it is gone.

Miracle Theater Group/Teatro Milagro presents ¡Viva La Revolución!, created by Martín Milagro, Directed by Olga Sanchez, Theater Artcard pieces by Analee Fuentes; with Nelda Reyes, Enrique E. Andrade, Alberto Romero, Cristina Cano, Noah Dunham, Amber Mitchell, and Nurys Herrera. Scenic Design by Sarah Lydecker, Costume Design & Choreography by Maria Moreno Ferrin. Thursdays through Sundays, October 20th through November 13th, 2011. 525 SE Stark Street, Portland, Oregon, 97214. (503) 236-7253. Tickets: $26.