Bless Me, Ultima Marks the Return of Teatro Bravo! to Downtown Phoenix

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Note: Tonight, Thursday, October 17, at 7 p.m., is a pay-what-you-can performance of Bless Me, Ultima. Donations will be accepted at the door. See the end of this post for location details.

The setup: This week, Curtains reviews a stage version of a famous, popular, critically acclaimed 1972 novel that . . . uh, I haven't read. The good news is that I now know about groundbreaking Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya and have a terrific list of 10 or so books to catch up on.

Anaya adapted his first novel, Bless Me, Ultima, for the stage himself, so at least we can be confident that the play's content is true to his intentions. It was also released as a film earlier this year, if you need even more immersion.

See also: Lorca in a Green Dress: Intense, Well-Crafted Metadrama from Teatro Bravo! The execution: Teatro Bravo! has a lovely home now as a resident company in Black Theatre Troupe's Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center that opened in February and enables BTT to continue its mission of fostering multicultural arts. The intimate, floor-level stage is wide, with audience seating gently sloping upward and stretching from one end to the other, so that no seats are very far from the action.

Kristin Blatchford has created a simple set that suits Ultima's episodic narrative well. A key piece is a sort of abstract archway that sometimes looks like sandstone and, under other lighting, appears to be covered with loose pages from a book, manuscript, or letters. In addition to having symbolic meaning, it serves as a doorway, often the only object that establishes a building or room onstage.

Though all the scene changes are swift and well-choreographed, it feels as though the cast is moving that archway around constantly. However, it represents the many passages of the main character, a young boy named Tony Marez, and the sometimes challenging steps he must take growing up under the influence of multiple cultures and faiths, so there is a reason. Carmen Guerrero's musical direction also makes those transitional moments unique and meaningful.

Speaking of living life in a slower, more relaxed rhythm, the theater is wonderfully atmospheric during preshow, that period after the doors are opened for seating and before the play officially begins. A recording of thunder and rain plays as changing light plays over the set and vague, glistening raindrops pop around on the backdrop. If you're a bit early, it's a great way to adjust your mood and metabolism and get ready for a fascinating story.

Elijio Carlos Ramirez plays the Author, a character who represents a 30-something Anaya struggling with his early writing. Tony (portrayed by seventh-grader Ryan Michael Bernardino in a confident and natural performance) is the Author as a little boy. The Author delivers some narration -- not too much -- and occasionally joins or replaces Tony at a pivotal moment in a scene.

Tony's parents have three older sons who are serving in World War II. His father, a manual laborer from a long line of vaqueros, wants to take the family from small-town New Mexico to California after the war and return to ranching. His mother is from a farming family and would like Tony to study hard and become a priest. This is just one of several conflicts in the boy's life.

An aging midwife and curandera (a practitioner of Mexican Indian herbal and spiritual medicine), Ultima, moves in with the Marezes for what will be the final year of her life. Her bond with Tony, and the things she helps him learn, assist him in integrating his multifaceted heritage and preparing for a life as a storyteller.

As far as actual action goes, there's tons of it. Tony seems destined to witness the death of some other character every time he turns around. (Most of the actors play two or three people, so we don't run out.) From supernatural curses to PTSD to plain old gun violence and way more drownings than you might expect, there's some evil juju about. At one point, Tony assists Ultima in removing a fatal curse from his uncle Lucas by following him into the underworld in a trance state.

We also see that some things in the world at large are changing forever, as they did in the 1940s, when the story takes place, and in the 1960s and '70s, when it was written. Some of the most vibrant and humorous scenes involve Tony's classmates from school and catechism. One believes in the power of the Golden Carp, an elusive fish who is also a sacred divinity from the indigenous religion. One is not sure he believes in God at all. Tony's brothers do come back, but they've seen things they can't unsee.

Anya Melkozernova's costumes are simple, yet they effectively communicate much. I was especially impressed that although I could always identify the three sisters who were allegedly witches (even though the actresses who play them also play Tony's best male friend, his teacher, and the biggest suck-up in his communion class), their dresses were subtle and not witch-y at all. Considering the size of the cast, how often they change clothes, and how close I was sitting, I also have to compliment the actors on their discipline -- I didn't hear a peep from backstage.

Director Ricky Araiza partnered with this tight ensemble to merge poetic language with dark imagery and the redemption provided by "all that is good and strong and beautiful," as Ultima says. Hailey Featherstone's lighting design is absolutely stunning, and not just in the preshow. There's a lot of unappreciated work involved in stage lighting that calls no attention to itself at all, but in this case, it does make you look, and wonderfully so, as pools of color and shadow conceal and reveal and magically change people and things from what they appear to be to something else.

The verdict: On opening night, Bless Me, Ultima felt just a little slow, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything. The company's probably tightened it up some by now, but the gentle pace is an important part of its message.

Some of the play's incidents could be a bit disturbing for small children, but it's about disturbing things happening to a small child and how he processes them, so it might be a good jumping-off place for a coming-of-age conversation. (The company suggests attending as a family.) The text's resonance with the evolution of Latino-American culture makes it interesting and locally relevant, and its artistic incarnation by Teatro Bravo! makes it a compelling introduction to, or enhancement of, a great piece of 20th-century American literature.

Bless Me, Ultima continues through Sunday, October 20, at 1333 East Washington Street. Purchase tickets, $10 to $20, here or call 602-258-1800.

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