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[whitespace] Storytelling: Papi Tres (David Termenal) spins a tale for Camilla (Alicia Rizzo).

Photograph by J. Henry Fair

Spirit World

Folk tales bridge the real and spirit worlds in Teatro Visión's 'El Cucui'

By Heather Zimmerman

TEATRO VISION has staged many provocative plays that don't follow dramatic conventions, and although the company's season closer, When El Cucui Walks, matches many of its successful predecessors with an unusual narrative structure and a broad surrealist streak, the drama is one of Teatro Visión's weaker offerings. Roy Conboy's tale of a young Latina woman who learns the meaning of life through her great-grandfather's stories ends up preaching an adherence to tradition without demonstrating much actual appreciation for its value.

Camilla (Alicia Rizzo) works long hours to support herself and her ailing great-grandfather, Papi Tres (David Termenal). Having given up pretty much all hope for the future, Camilla has given in to her own misery. Papi Tres tries to renew her hope by telling her traditional stories of El Cucui, who represents the darkness within the human soul, specifically, its worst fears.

When Camilla dismisses these stories, Papi Tres summons El Cucui (Edward Martin Perez) in the flesh to help him. At Papi Tres' request, El Cucui brings a man into Camilla's life, Brian (Ted D'Agostino), forcing her to contemplate the possibility of falling in love and having a life beyond caring for her great-grandfather.

Conboy weaves dreamlike re-enactments of Papi Tres' stories throughout the more prosaic scenes of Camilla's life. The story world is populated by menacing spirits wearing animal masks--most importantly, a coyote who moves between the real and story worlds, and who reveals himself to be El Cucui. Director Elisa Marina Gonzalez skillfully taps the energy of both "worlds," making particularly effective use of Perez, whose El Cucui is a powerful, leering and often frightening kind of spirit guide that bridges these two worlds. His vivacious, gleeful performance offers a good counterbalance to Rizzo's controlled Camilla. Termenal adeptly communicates both Papi Tres' wisdom and physical frailty.

Unfortunately, the play's theme about the power of storytelling--and of heeding our elders' stories--becomes obscured by the story itself, with the nearly incessant retelling of the tale Papi Tres hopes will teach Camilla how to really live, a story of a person lost in the forest and under attack by animal spirits. This tale appears repeatedly throughout the play, in the form of nightmares, re-enactments and, finally, of course, as a revelation to Camilla, who must walk through her own telling of the story to discover the meaning of her life. So many tellings shift the focus of the play away from any potential moral of the fable to simply the story itself.

In most cultures, folk tales and fables are passed along as guides to life, and Papi Tres' storytelling seems to have similar intentions. Likewise, Teatro Visión's staging a fable about how there's more to life than work is quite timely for Silicon Valley. But in the end, Conboy gives us a play that's simply about a story rather than the value of the message the story was meant to convey.

He further diminishes the tale's meaning by sewing up the play's ending too neatly, and in a way that's not believable for a play that demonstrates a unique willingness to embrace the dark side of life. Generally, the best stories don't solve problems but teach us how to deal with them. And the best stories, whether foreboding folk tales or a fluffy fairy tales, are still told today, not just for the sake of telling them, but because they accomplish that goal.

When El Cucui Walks plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through May 28 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $10-$12 Thursday and Sunday, $14-$17 Friday-Saturday. (800.MHC.VIVA)

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From the May 25-31, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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