La Llorona is the Mexican bogeywoman, the ghost of a mother who killed her children and cries and wails in the night, especially near bodies of water. She's a mean, crazy bitch who might just come for you if you don't behave yourself -- or is she? That's just part of the thought-provoking, moody mystery in Carlos Manuel's Lloronas, a new play directed by Fernando Tesón for Teatro Bravo! at Phoenix Center for the Arts.
Manuel found, in his research, that the Aztec goddess Cihuacoatl, who is credited in mythology with helping create humankind, abandoned her own son, and her weeping was seen as an omen of the imminent arrival of Hernán Cortés and the destruction of Aztec civilization and culture (the gods' other "children"). In two interwoven plots, Manuel's play explores how the Spanish conquerors might have revised the weeping goddess into a bedtime-story villainess, downplaying her powerful role in a religion they were set on eradicating, while following the paralyzing grief of a contemporary young mother whose ex-husband has taken their small daughter away to Mexico.
As Marisela (Erica Mathlin) struggles with depression and uncertainty, she's troubled by nightmares of La Llorona (Dulce Juarez). Marisela's brother, Victor (Adrian Hernandez), is working on an essay about the Llorona legend, and he helps her face the idea that the dream visits might be about bonding and closure -- as a mere mortal, one can only weep for so long.
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Meanwhile, a few hundred years in the past, a young Aztec woman, Xochi (also played by Juarez -- who also plays Marisela's therapist, in a skillful display of thoughtful casting and subtle, focused acting), is profoundly in love with Jose Carlos (Domanic Gabaldon), the son of a wealthy family of Spanish colonists that has settled near her village. Their secret relationship is threatened by cultural differences and Jose Carlos' father's plans for the young man's future.
Although Xochi's family and friends promise to take care of her and the couple's children, her eventual betrayal by Jose Carlos leads her to a passionate, virtually unforgivable act. As a trio of Aztec priests observes helplessly, the omens start to add up, and Xochi passes to the next world, hauntingly testifying to everything she and her society lost.
Despite the refreshing touches of magical realism that tie the stories together, along with Manuel's realistically irreverent portrayal of the 21st-century Mexican-American family in crisis, a few elements of the script are a bit contrived. Nevertheless, there's so much going on, with creepy, appropriate spirit dance sequences choreographed by Scorpius Dance Theatre's Lisa Starry, a traditional La Llorona ballad belted out by Elizabeth Toledo as Victor closes the restaurant where he works, and fiercely costumed Aztec clergy overseeing the doom and redemption, you won't have much time to nitpick.
Lloronas continues through Saturday, March 13, at Phoenix Center for the Arts, 1202 North Third Street. Tickets, $12 to $15, are available at the door. Click here to check for discounts, or call 602-258-1800 for more information.