Review: Luchadora by Mary Moody Northen Theatre
by Michael Meigs
Parents have their secrets, even responsible and affectionate parents, and children don't often discover them. Especially not when the offspring is still a child; single children—those without siblings—probably even less often. But there's a magic at work as one approaches adulthood and develops into a person uncannily like one or the other parent. Or both.
"Coming of age" and "quest" stories have always resounded, whether told beside a campfire, in a novel or movie, or onstage. Álvaro Saar Ríos's Luchadora is a bit of both. Vanessa, the single child of a hard-working benevolent fathervisits her abuelita Nana Lupita, who gives her the task of carrying a leather briefcase to a mysterious woman known only as the mask maker, and gradually a story emerges, tied to a bright pink cowled mask handed down from the world of Mexican free-style wrestling.
Vanessa's story and that of her family also belong to a more recently developed trope: that of Mexican-heritage children growing up in the mixed cultural environment of the United States. In these Young Adult plays, the protagonists are attached to family tradition and yet affected by modern societal norms, particularly those involving gender models. Like Roxanne Schroeder-Arce's 2012 Mariachi Girl, Luchadora, written at about the same time, has as its central figure a young woman ardently interested in her heritage who wants to participate in an activity traditionally barred to women. Unlike Mariachi Girl, Luchadora is also a wish-fulfillment fable close to a superhero reveal (a familiar trope in mainstream U.S. culture).
In the memory section of the play, young Lupita's bike-riding friends Leopold and Liesl are of German heritage. Emile Silvero and Claire Lane, both slim, knobby-kneed, and dressed to look much younger, are apt, enthusiastic foils to Lupita (played by Mia Ramirez). Their characters' heritage is also devotedly cross cultural, and their older sister Hannah (Vivienne Verges) resisted gender stereotyping by playing high school football and defying her parents to join the U.S. Army.
Luchadora is charming, an opportunity to let our own inner child exult in Vanessa's struggle and triumph as she steps in to replace her beloved father. Tonie Knight as patient but exacting Nana Lupita is family historian, spiritual guide, and secret superwoman; Ali Matos as the mask maker becomes Vanessa's Yoda, a stern coach in the strenuous art of wrestling. Victor Santos as Vanessa's father, the ageing proprietor of a flower stand, is revealed to have been a determined, eventually successful freestyle wrestler who now, fourteen years later, faces a daunting challenge from the son of his greatest rival.
The generational trio of grandmother, father, and Vanessa represents heritage and family continuity. Particularly impressive on opening night was the performance of Becca Jimenez as protagonist Vanessa. Not only because of her command of Vanessa's dialogue and emotions; Luchadora, as the title indicates, has plenty of challenging stage combat, and Jimenez, an understudy, appeared not to put a foot or a finger wrong in any of it. Short, focused, and chipper, Jimenez gave her all.
And whether the spectator is youthful or older, that inner child has lots to cheer about and cheer for, because there's plenty of staged wrestling done by vigorous, muscular students masked with the colorful cowls and outfits created by Proyecto Teatro's Luis Ordaz Gutiérrez and Guicha Gutiérrez.
Fight direction by Roen E. Salinas, Ph.D, cleverly evokes the play, competition, sneakiness, and strutting that characterize exhibition wrestling, and some of those falls are resouding thumps onto the thick mats. Marcelo Rivera as El Hijo, son of the champion who once challenged Vanessa's father, has the strut, scorn, and microphone control of the baddest of bad guys. And Jimenez's execution of the carefully choreographed defeats first of her own father and later of El Hijo indicated that she'd been training just as hard as her character and Sonia Maria Fonseca, the talented actor whom she replaced that night.
I found myself enthusiastically participating in a double suspension of belief. I accepted the play's premise that lucha libre is sincere, hard-fought combat despite my own experience that U.S. wrestling is mostly phony spectacle, and I both accepted and admired the illusion of violence and competition established by the artifices of staged combat.
Luchadora is a fable, and a useful one. Saar Ríos gives us a sweet tale about childhood, growing up, and identity both cross-cultural and multiple. He urges young persons, most particularly young women, to embrace the heroic in all worlds. Director Khristián Méndez Aguirre stages the story with swift and certain sincerity. The central stage is mostly bare but it practically glows with the rug design of Tenzing Ortega, and Ortega's fold-up panels in the theatre's raised corners establish the mask shop and the flower stand with puppet-show whimsy.
April 13 - April 23, 2023
3001 S Congress Ave
Austin, TX, 78704
Show Dates and Times
April 13, 14, 15, 20, 21 & 22, 2023 at 7:30 pm. Sundays April 16 & 23 at 2:00 pm.
All performances will be held at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre on the St. Edward’s University campus, 3001 S. Congress Ave, Austin, TX. Parking is free.
Adult single tickets are $28
Educator/Seniors are $22
Student tickets are $15
Tickets are available by calling the MMNT Box Office at 512-448-8484 or online HERE.