The first movie I ever saw was the epic drama Blood and Sand. Tyrone Power played the dashing Manolete, the greatest bullfighter who ever lived. With the dramatic flourish of a spangled cape, Arizona Theatre Company is presenting the world premiäre of Milcha Sanchez-Scott's The Old Matador on the main stage of Herberger Theater Center. This exaggerated, operatic comedy is an exercise in that oddest of contemporary forms, magic realism. The style is a Hispanic phenomenon developed most notably in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Eduardo Machado's Floating Islands and Jose Rivera's Each Day Dies With Sleep brought the form to the theatre. A hybrid of naturalism and surrealism, the style is heavily poetic and metaphor-laden, but depicts the most ordinary of lives--rather like a dramatic rendition of the heroic peasants in Diego Rivera's murals. Matador takes place "somewhere in the Southwest," and the scenes alternate between the quaint, if skewed, front porch of a small house and a local cantina vibrant with the rhythms of flamenco. The house is the home of Enrique, his wife, Margarita, their daughter Jesse and son Raphael, better known as Cookie.
An overweight adolescent boy, Cookie folds newspapers at dawn for his paper route. As he bites a persistent hangnail, he listens to the purring tones of a late-night disc jockey on the radio, whose rap seems almost to express Cookie's private dreams. His eyes and nose seem to drift toward the center of his face, like those of a cartoon character, as he listens to the velvet tones update a news report of a lost Boy Scout--a motif that runs throughout the play.
Jesse has just ended her engagement to be married. Distraught, she abandons the wedding cake in the car, which has just broken down. Rather than face the humiliation, Jesse lies on the center stripe of the highway in front of her house, hoping a passing semi will roll over her and end her angst. "Come on, God! Give it to me!" Margarita and Enrique are quarreling because the 57-year-old Enrique wants to take his retirement money and go to Spain. In his youth, he postponed his ambition to be a matador like the great Manolete in order to come to America and establish his family. "I must go back," he explains. "I left a piece of my young soul."
We first see Enrique in an ersatz matador costume, but as the set turns to reveal the cantina, he puts an apron over the outfit to become a bartender at the cantina. In his exuberance at the bar, Enrique suffers a heart attack, and he is brought home and put to bed.
Near the end of the first act, there is a shower of meteorites. With an explosion and a puff of smoke amid glitter and sparkles, a ragged man seems to fall from the sky. He is dressed in a ripped overcoat, a toboggan cap and long underwear, his dopey expression suggests pure innocence. And then we notice the mangy wings protruding from his shoulder blades. Is he an angel?
The second act is largely taken up with this debate. Margarita is convinced he is only a homeless wino and insists that Jesse call 911, the police, social services. Cookie is convinced the tramp is an angel fallen from heaven. They communicate to each other in pig Latin.
Margarita corrals the stranger into the chicken coop, where, with his lice-ridden feathers, he looks like he belongs. But whenever the tramp locks eyes with one of his captors, heavenly music rings out, and, by turns, each character lives out a fantasy that reveals an inner truth. Margarita is transformed from harpy housewife into Marilyn Monroe standing over the subway grate, her skirt billowing up, singing "Besame Mucho." And when Enrique looks into the stranger's eyes, "I am Manolete. The honor of this bull is mine!"
To fully empathize with Enrique's dream, it might be helpful to know that the great bullfighter Manolete was born on July 5 in 1917 as Manuel Laureano Roderiguez Sanchez. Manolete was renowned for the extreme economy of his movement and his dispassionate demeanor in the ring. As Enrique describes him, "He fought the bull as if he were serving Mass."
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Enormously popular with the crowds at the corridas in Spain and Mexico, Manolete reigned supreme in the plaza de toro for 13 years until, at the age of 30, he was brutally gored to death by what was to be his last bull.
With the arrival of the wino/angel, Enrique is enrobed in the dazzling sparkle of the bullfighter. The dressing of the matador is a mesmerizing moment. The angel from the sky becomes his bull. After a couple of passes, an enormous red silk curtain is yanked from above, and enfolds the body of the old man in his dying fantasy. The angel has come for him. The cast is, on the whole, quite fine, and the physical production is splendid. In particular, Fred Sugerman glows as the Angel. Geno Silva brings dignity to Enrique, resembling Richard Dreyfuss in manner as well as appearance. Ivonne Coll may occasionally be a touch broad in her comedy, but she manages to bring many colors to her rather hackneyed role as Margarita. Erica Ortega is properly spoiled as Jesse, and I'm not sure anyone could make her self-pity more appealing. As Cookie, Valente Rodriguez is an endearing foolish center to the play, a welcome relief from the dramatics.
In case we have missed the message of the play, it is explained in a lengthy program note by Arizona professor Meg Lota Brown, as well as in an earnest note from Peter C. Brosius, the overly sentimental director of the production: One gets the feeling that no one at ATC had much faith that the play could stand on its own.
Your appreciation of The Old Matador will probably depend on the level of your tolerance for ungrounded whimsy and for the gurgling fountain of purple prose. But there are songs, dances, laughs, and, most of all, that enchanting homeless man who just may convince you he is an angel.