I last studied Mexico in second grade. How about you? Since then, I've learned that an eagle on a prickly pear eating a snake is a pretty safe bet if you're looking for a sign to found your city just about anywhere in this climate zone.
But I haven't learned enough to fathom New Carpa Theater Company's The Eagle & The Serpent: A History of Mexico Abridged.
Before we go on, full disclosure: In addition to my previously disclosed relationship with New Carpa (for whom I've continued to perform and design since then, but not since May of this year), my name is listed as a costume assistant in the program for their current production. I didn't know I'd earned a title until I showed up at the theater to see the play, but regardless, I still would have shared the fact that I loaned them a few costume pieces of my own (none of which is pictured above) from a list the designer created and circulated. I wasn't paid anything -- not even a fuel stipend -- nor did I ask to be. Obviously, in any case, I won't mention costumes in this review.
I like to think that James E. Garcia generously overestimated his audience's education (and not just mine) when he chose which highlights of the Mexican nation's rich and complex 30,000-year evolution to cover in a two-act play. (Don't worry -- one thing I've got to acknowledge is that the first 27,000 years just fly by.) Even with helpful dates projected upstage, I could have used nametags, flowcharts, hyperlinks, and a decoder ring for instances of poetic license, editorial comment, and magical realism.
Sor Juana Inés was a famous poet? If you say so, dude. Simón Bolivar -- okay, Bolivia's named after him, right? But is he really in the room giving this guy advice, or is it all in our heads? (I might as well have chugged a few beers first.)
And people kept taking over the government, sometimes through revolution, sometimes civil war, sometimes -- go figure -- via questionable election results. I have no idea who (other than smallpox) won most of the battles that were mentioned during the show. Not that it would matter to me -- I'm an Ugly American, and chances are you are, too. And before you jump all over this in the comments, you do know what "chances are" means, right?
Director Arturo Anthony Martinez's cast (along with Ruth Vichules' literally curated, emotionally resonant soundtrack), is an enormous help in keeping things lively, but nevertheless, the first act drags considerably. It does get us all the way up to the 20th century, however, when actor Ernesto Moncada lights a fire under the proceedings with his portrayal of, of all people, renowned Latin American film comic Cantinflas.
Turns out it doesn't matter than most people who haven't peeped the promotional materials for the show, let alone who don't speak Spanish and also dig old movies, will even know who Moncada's supposed to be. Like a Mexi Marx brother (Groucho or Karl, take your pick), Moncada pops up to lubricate history as a bartender, a journalist, a lotería caller, a narrator, and both a defense and prosecuting attorney in a climactic, funny, captivating fantasy trial of president after president. (He was pretty sweet as Hernán Cortés in Act I, but the second half is written and performed -- whether on purpose or not -- as a completely different play, gracias a Dios.)
Moncada's been a longtime fixture in political theater and performance art at the Firehouse, among other venues, and more recently as co-founder of The Red Dress Tours at First Fridays. His acting style is a bit more, well, stylized than you might be used to, but it's suffused with deceptively casual energy, an unapologetic, Dennis Miller-esque braininess, and laser-style precision. Also, he's cute as a bug.
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His castmates are nothing to sneeze at, but they don't possess the power to rouse The Eagle & The Serpent: A History of Mexico Abridged from its narrative torpor for the first hour-plus. (Although the clockwork reappearances by -- again, of all things -- the firing squad get to be pretty damn funny, too.)
So brace yourself, and maybe do a little homework.
The Eagle & The Serpent: A History of Mexico Abridged continues through Sunday, October 17, at Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center (ALAC -- a.k.a. the most recent location of Muséo Chicano), 147 East Adams Street. To reserve tickets, $10 to $15, call 623-252-2772.
Crip Tip of the Week: This one's for the able-bodied, too -- there's mucho construction in downtown Peoria these days, so if you're attending events at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts (such as, say, a Theater Works show), you're likely to be parking in some alternate areas for a while. The shopping center on the southwest corner of Peoria and 84th avenues, anchored by Peoria Cafe, is lending 25 free spaces, and both of the 84th Avenue Park-and-Ride lots a block or two south of the theater are also available for audience members. The Center's own small parking lot, with its designated handicapped parking spaces, remains open as well.