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Theater Review

Question-and-Answer Session

Luis Valdez's 'Mummified Deer' provides curving responses to some ambitious questions.

November 03, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — A woman more than 80 years of age carries in her womb a mummified fetus, conceived decades earlier. What are the stories behind this story?

From a newspaper article worthy of Weekly World News comes the world premiere of "Mummified Deer," now at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. It is the first new work from playwright Luis Valdez in nearly 15 years. At present, it feels more like three or four new works competing for stage time. Its focus isn't so much multifaceted as it is distracted, restless.

Yet Valdez is on to something--and with the dying matriarch Mama Chu, played with grit and vitality by Alma Martinez, he's on to a potentially formidable central figure.

It's 1969, and various family members have reunited in a San Diego hospital. Center stage is Mama Chu, and in scenic designer Giulio Cesare Perrone's clever imagining, the realistic gurney and IV-drip are surrounded by an abstract adobe unit set, honoring the main character's Yaqui Indian roots.

Armida (Maria Candelaria, who has a lovely directness) has come down from UC Berkeley after a two-year separation from her dying grandmother. She's the one with all the questions. If Mama Chu has been carrying a fetus all these years, then were the other children adoptive? What are the implications for everyone living, and wondering?

Act 1 scoots here and there, mingling Yaqui Indian myth (embodied by the deer dancer, played by Lakin Valdez, Luis' son) with scenes of a heinous Anglo doctor (James Newcomb) and nurse (Mary Burt) discussing Mama Chu's fate. The play's most vivid characters are Mama Chu and her daughter, Oralia (vividly funny as played by Catalina Maynard). You want more of them.

Act 2 changes gears, offering all the answers to questions rather stridently posed in Act 1. Here we learn the big secrets, one after another. Incest, brutal "colonization" of the Yaquis and much more come into play. With Armida's prodding, she gleans more than she bargained for, including the identity of her own father.

This is comparatively unexplored territory for the writer best known for "Zoot Suit," the Living History phenomenon that became a touchstone for the Mark Taper Forum, for Latino theater visibility and possibility, and for Valdez himself. In another way, though, "Mummified Deer" is typical of Valdez's entire canon, beginning with the mid-1960s flatbed-truck actos performed for and by striking farm workers. "Mummified Deer" offers a crazy mixture of styles and tonalities, roping in everything from Mexican carpa circus techniques to Yaqui mythology to grievous genocide.

Act 2 is more involving than Act 1, but you can see what Valdez is after. He wants to establish a swirl of realities first and then home in on What Really Happened. There's a crude effectiveness to this tactic, but Mama Chu tends to get lost in her own chronicle. As portrayed by Martinez, who has a long history with Valdez's El Teatro Campesino, she's a life force who doesn't give up her secrets easily. "Every tie I've ever asked about my mother's life I've never gotten a straight answer," says the Berkeley granddaughter. "Why?"

Her uncle (Ruben Garfias) replies: "Maybe there's none. Just crooked ones." Though the actor treats this moment as a throwaway joke, it isn't. It's the key to this half-good play, deserving of its next developmental step.

* "Mummified Deer," San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego. Tuesdays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Also: 2 p.m. Wednesday matinees Nov. 8 and Nov. 15. Ends Nov. 19. $22-$38. (619) 544-1000. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Mary Burt: Nurse

Maria Candelaria: Armida

Raul Cardona: Lucas Flores

Alysa Flores: Tilly

Ruben Garfias: Profe

Alma Martinez: Mama Chu

Catalina Maynard: Oralia

James Newcomb: Doctor/Don Guero

Marcos Rodriguez: Cosme Bravo

Lakin Valdez: Yaqui

VIVIS: Augustine

Written and directed by Luis Valdez. Scenic designer Giulio Cesare Perrone. Costume designer Melanie Watnick. Lighting designer Chris Rynne. Sound designer Todd Reischman. Composer/music director Daniel Valdez. Stage manager Dana Schneider.

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