On Nov. 1 and 2, the Mexican nation celebrates the Day of the Dead, a traditional time to catch up with dead ancestors and friends. Families invite the spirits of the dead into their homes and visit cemeteries bearing gifts of flowers, candy, alcohol and tobacco (apparently, the dead like to have a good time). Rather than a funereal occasion, El Dia de los Muertos is treated as a festival, a time to honor the dead by throwing them a party.
Las Carpas were traditional Mexican tent shows that resembled something between Vaudeville and American traveling circuses. Focused less on animals and freak shows and more on singing, dancing, acrobatics and outrageous costumes, Las Carpas entertained many audiences in Meso-America before their demise in the mid-20th century.
Calavera literally translates as "skull," so besides being the Day of the Dead Festival, this is also the Tent Show of the Skull. What is particularly interesting about the title of Miracle Theater’s most recent performance is the duality of the name: besides simply a scary skull, calavera is also the term for the skull-shaped sugar candy that is traditionally used to celebrate El Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. The Miracle Theater Company uses this multiplicity of meaning throughout their performance, alternating between funny and serious, sweet and ironic.
The first 45-minute act begins with an enthusiastic "Buenos Dia de los Muertos" from the ringmaster of the ensuing circus. Welcoming the audience to the Day of the Dead are a host of dancing skeletons, which comprise the cast, crew, and occasionally performing animals of the show. The first purpose of the dance is to formally break the division between audience and stage – the actors move into the audience, encouraging participation and focusing on the younger members present. The goal of the performance is not to frighten, but to entertain. This becomes quickly obvious during the first of several comic skits of bad jokes told in English and Spanish.
One of the goals of the Miracle Theater is to present shows that appeal to the Hispanic audience. Works are chosen for their relation to or depiction of Meso-American life and their contemporary themes. Many pieces are written by local Hispanic playwrights, and speak to both the difficulties and the joys of the Hispanic heritage. In addition, Miracle Theater allies itself closely with human service organizations in Portland in an effort to connect with under-privileged and at-risk youth; the company routinely sponsors programs to bring people to the theater who might not otherwise be there.
The beautifully performed dance of La Llorona is followed by the traditional folk ballad of the same name, sung in Spanish. Unfortunately, the use of Spanish at this point leaves some audience members in the dark. The dance is mesmerizing, as is the impressive solo, and both can be appreciated without following the lyrical story; the trouble comes, however, in the use of that story throughout the rest of the performance. It was only by reading the information in the lobby during the intermission that many audience members were capable of catching up.
The first act ends with a pointed skit concerning the Minutemen – those self-appointed borderguards who patrol the US/Mexican border in an attempt to halt what they consider illegal immigration. Although the audience leaves laughing, the actors left no doubt about the serious nature of the problem.
Artistic Director Olga Sanchez attempts to incorporate movement, dance and music into each production, employing a wide variety of actors to flesh out her vision. To realize her acrobatic demands in El Dia, she wisely hired Emily Gleason and Hector Ilias, whose amazing physical performances fill a few gaps in the otherwise busy schedule of the tent show. The multiple talents of the other actors are no less impressive, and the group coheres as a whole to create an atmosphere of camaraderie of both the dead and living.
The second, and final, act continues the loose storyline of an immigrant Mexican child mourning her dead mother. Additional dance numbers, skits and musical pieces complete the 1.5-hour presentation. The second act becomes slightly more political than the first, speaking to the sufferings of newly arrived Hispanic-Americans, and the injustices suffered by those born in the US.
The Miracle Theater’s production values live up to what should be expected of a 20-plus-year-old theater company. Lighting is sufficient, but not overwhelming; costuming is innovative, sensible, and used to add coherency to the performance. Only the sound occasionally left something to be desired, as if the stage or sound manager was slightly off on their cues.
Overall, the performance was exceedingly authentic and entertaining, as evidenced by the sing-along inspired by traditional folk ballads. Considered as a window into various aspects of Hispanic culture for some, and a resurrection of a national holiday by others, El Dia de los Muertos Festival: La Carpa Calavera attests to the prowess of Hispanic theater in Portland.
525 SE Stark St.
Oct. 27 ?” Nov. 12
Thursday 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.