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It plays to the actors and the audience

In Mexico, a company involves indigenous communities in staging a Garcia Lorca classic speaking to their lives.

November 01, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Back home, hundreds of miles away, many of their cornfields had been destroyed by rain and wind, and their houses lay in ruins. But when the 170 members of the Indigenous and Peasant Theater Laboratory took to the stage Saturday night, for two hours their thoughts were diverted from last week's devastating effects of Hurricane Wilma.

Instead, the company was focused on the formidable task at hand: a production of Federico Garcia Lorca's "Bodas de Sangre" (Blood Wedding). For this was no by-the-book staging of the Spanish playwright's 1933 tragedy about lovers thwarted by stifling social customs.

Starting with the "stage" itself -- the interior of the Plaza de Toros Mexico, the world's largest bullring, which had been decorated to look like a rural Indian village -- the production was anything but conventional. Several hectares' worth of corn, maguey and cactus plants filled the bullring's sloping terraces. The huge cast was supplemented by 22 horses tramping around the red-dirt floor. Traditional brass bands marched between scenes. And in the big wedding spectacular, the ensemble broke into native Mexican dance, conjuring both the world of Garcia Lorca's play and the world of Mexico's indigenous people from the southern state of Tabasco, where the production was set.

Those two worlds aren't really so far apart, says Maria Alicia Martinez Medrano, the energetic middle-aged woman who serves as the Laboratory's artistic director. While "Blood Wedding" is one of the most-produced plays in the Spanish language, Martinez believes it's a natural fit for Tabasco's remote indigenous communities, where arranged marriages have been known for centuries and young couples must often defer to their elders' wishes.

"All the indigenous understood the work ['Blood Wedding'] very well, because in each village, in every city, in all the world, there is this conflict," Martinez says. "The parents -- if it's indigenous parents or millionaires -- want the woman to marry a rich man. And love is not like this. You love the person you love.... So Lorca is universal."

The indigenous actors are accustomed to other hardships too. The weekend before they were due to perform three shows in the nation's capital, several dozen cast members from the Yucatan peninsula were struggling to survive as Wilma tore through the coastal region, tearing roofs off houses and stranding thousands without food or potable water. It was the third major hurricane to strike the area since June.

The Laboratory had to send buses to search for its actors, many of whom were hunkered down in emergency shelters, wondering how to make it to Mexico City. Some arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and only three days to rehearse. But they were determined to go ahead with the scheduled performances.

"We had the obligation to present a work of theater here, in Mexico City, so it was a big responsibility. We had to comply," says Marbil Morales Mendoza, an actress and teacher at the Laboratory.

Garcia Lorca's works may be universal, but the Laboratory is a rarity. Since it was founded more than 30 years ago, it has provided instruction in theater, music and dance to 5,000 indigenous Mexicans from across the country. The company relies on private funding sources and non-federal government support. It has traveled extensively, bringing such works as "Romeo and Juliet" and the writers of Spain's Golden Age to audiences in cities such as New York, Madrid and beyond.

Instruction is rigorous, and participants must take exams and be graded by a panel of theater experts. But admission is open to any indigenous person, from 3-year-olds to septuagenarians. "There are grown-ups that take classes in the laboratory, that participate in the works, and they don't know how to read or write," says Delia Rendon Novelo, one of the company's producers. "And many only speak some indigenous language. So there are no requirements more than that they want to make theater."

Mexico's indigenous communities are famous for the way they incorporate music, dance and ritualized performance into fiestas, religious ceremonies and daily life. But attending a formal, sit-down theater performance in a closed space is beyond the means of most Mexicans.

"Here in Mexico, really, culture is very expensive," says actor Armin Vazquez Martinez, who plays the part of the love-struck, tragically fated Leonardo. "Here the culture is very elitist. He that makes theater and goes to the theater has money, because he can buy a ticket. So the access of the people, the access of the peasant, isn't permitted in this country."

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