Story: Vanessa loves her grandmother, Nana Lupita, but the teen also is obsessed with her cell phone. She enjoys visiting with Nana, who relishes the time spent with her granddaughter despite the youngster’s pre-occupation with her phone.
One day Nana leaves a mysterious briefcase which she always takes with her at her daughter’s house. When Vanessa returns the case to Nana, her grandmother asks if she looked inside at the contents. After a brief fib, Vanessa confesses that she did so. But why, she asks Nana, does she carry around a mask?
That sets in motion Nana’s description of her own childhood, when she and her father lived in Texas. She knew that Father was a hard-working man, but she is surprised when she eventually discovers that he is a luchador (Mexican wrestler) who long has participated in lucha libre (Mexican wrestling).
After Lupita learns the truth from her father’s friend known as The Mask Maker, Father reluctantly tells her of his background and how he once rose through the ranks to wrestle the very best, including the villainous El Hijo. When Father was unable to fulfill a commitment to take on El Hijo, he essentially retired.
Now, years later, he feels compelled to accept El Hijo’s long-held challenge, despite a serious back injury. Secretly, Lupita begins training under the watchful eye of The Mask Maker, determined to substitute for her father behind his mask in El Hijo’s winner-take-all challenge. Does a girl stand a chance in the ring against the boastful, swaggering bad guy?
Highlights: Mustard Seed Theatre, in collaboration with Theatre Nuevo, is closing its 2017-18 season with a charming and entertaining production of a fun little fable by playwright Alvaro Saar Rios which packs important messages within its comic framework.
Other Info: Theatre Nuevo artistic director Anna Skidis Vargas, who directs this two-act, 105-minute show, says in program notes that what she considered was “a feminist play for young Chicanas, as I had originally thought, (is) for everyone.”
Rios includes a sub-plot involving German immigrant neighbors of Lupita’s family in the 1960s in their small Texas town. Lupita’s friends Leo and Liesl frequently ride their bikes to Father’s flower shop to hang out with Lupita, while their older sister Hannah dreams of joining the military, against the wishes of their protective father.
Rios’ engaging effort is given a brisk, sprightly reading by Vargas’ appealing cast, who turn in uniformly fine interpretations. They perform on a whimsical set designed by David Blake which is dominated by a large mask looming over the proceedings. The two-level design also includes a staircase at stage right which leads to Nana Lupita’s room.
A table at stage left serves as Father’s floral slot in the local market and also is turned around to reveal The Mask Maker’s shop. Michael Sullivan’s lighting expands the look of the set, Zoe Sullivan’s sound design enhances it with flamenco guitars and other Latino sounds and Carly Parent’s costumes accentuate El Hijo’s braggadocio as well as the ethnic backgrounds of Lupita, Leo and Liesl.
Mark Kelley brings some realism to the bout between El Hijo and Lupita with his fight choreography, which also gets a workout in some side scenes between a pair of masked wrestling marvels.
Vargas keeps the story moving between its three major plots as Rios manages to get across important messages about following one’s dreams, love of family and the tragedy of distant wars. The playwright also pays tribute to the migrant workers who are, as he notes in the program, “the unsung ‘warriors’ of our country...a life my father had throughout his childhood and one he made sure I didn’t have to experience.”
The top-notch cast includes an amusing performance by Carl Overly Jr. as the vaunted El Hijo, a luchador who milks his villainous status with a showman’s flair. Carmen Garcia radiates warmth and wisdom as Nana Lupita, who reveals to her aspiring boxer granddaughter her own youthful determination.
Isabel Garcia nicely conveys Vanessa’s typical teen love affair with her phone as well as her respect for her grandmother, while Thalia Cruz shows how the younger Lupita’s love for her widowed father drove her to strive for her own accomplishments, no matter how unlikely.
There’s fine work as well by Cassandra Lopez as The Mask Maker, the ‘Mickey’ to Lupita’s ‘Rocky’ as she trains the determined young woman on how to get the wrestling job done to be a true luchadora. As Father, Rahamses Galvan shows the luchador’s love for his daughter as the driving passion behind his own work.
Hannah Pauluhn infuses Hannah with her own determination and quiet self-respect as she drives herself to become a soldier over her father’s objections. There’s a poignant performance by Cassidy Flynn, who is quite effective in convincing an audience that he’s an impressionable youngster, something Ashley Skaggs conveys as well as younger sister Liesl.
Ryan Lawson-Maeske rounds out the cast in several supporting roles, including a wrestling announcer with a penchant for exaggeration.
Luchadora! is family-friendly entertainment and a reminder to follow the Bard’s advice that “this above all, to thine own self be true.”
Company: Mustard Seed Theatre with Theatre Nuevo
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown
Dates: June 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17
Tickets: $30-$35 (or Pay with a Can/Pay What You Can on Thursdays); contact www.mustardseedtheatre.com or 719-8060
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb