The Latino Theater Company's recent production of Melancholia seamlessly blended influences from the early Chicano theatre movement with contemporary political issues and elements of European theatrical tradition to stage the widespread devastation of warfare. By following the journey of an East LA marine, the play explores the increasingly high rate of suicide among soldiers returning from Iraq. Created collectively by the company's laboratory of new actors in 2003, the piece grew out of community based research, improvisations, and workshops, premiering at the Edge of the World Festival in October 2005. As the Iraq war rages on and both sides suffer the consequences, the Latino Theater Company chose to remount the production for the Los Angeles Theater Center's Cultural Reconstruction Series in the spring of 2007.
The audience entered a small black-box theatre where a minimalist set and low whispers greeted them, setting the tone for the production, which was purposefully unpredictable, nonlinear, and highly theatrical. The play began in darkness with a haunting aria from Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, titled "Dido's Lament." After the echoes of the aria faded, several soldiers ran across the stage and exited through an illuminated door. Two fools/clowns, Tar (Fidel Gomez) and Skittles (Carmen Corral), managed to stop one soldier, Mario, from going "into the light"; determined to save his soul, they decide to go back and replay the events of his life to try to save him from the darkness of melancholy. The scenes shift to various moments in Mario's past, which illuminate his life choices and offer insight into his worsening alcoholism and insomnia as he distances himself from family and friends, struggling to forget the unspeakable acts that haunt him every time he closes his eyes.
With Melancholia, the Latino Theater Company continues to mine an aesthetic grounded in the techniques of the early Chicano theatre movement by combining minimalist staging with music, dance, ritual, and haunting imagery. The production also reflected influences and didactic methods associated with the movement's early styles: actos, collectively created, improvised agitprop scenes; mitos, or myths; and corridos, Chicano storytelling songs. In addition to Melancholia's collective and improvisation-based creation, the production also shared elements traditional to these pieces, including the use of Brechtian devices, strategic use of music and song, a bilingual script rich with Chicano slang, and classic Chicano characters such as La Muerte (Death). Melancholia bears a striking similarity to Soldado Razo, an early Chicano acto performed to protest the Vietnam War during the Chicano Moratorium in 1971. Theatrical similarities between the plays include a strong antiwar theme, a focus on the role of the family in Chicano culture, the integral role of La Muerte in the central character's life, and the use of whiteface makeup, here used on the entire cast. This visual technique was highly successful, serving as a constant reminder of the death that haunts Mario and foreshadows his demise, while also allowing each actor to slip into several roles. Three different actors played the role of Mario (Ramiro Segovia, Sam Golzari, and Michael Esparza) and often occupied the stage at the same time, a choice that also contributed to the play's Brechtian tactics. The production's incorporation of European elements was also evident in its juxtaposition of Shakespearean dialogue from Hamlet with contemporary language and Chicano slang to create profound insights into mortality with dialogue accessible to the community audience.
Throughout the evening, several key moments in Mario's tumultuous journey through his past emphasized the didactic nature of this production, solidifying the play's antiwar message. For example, a reenactment of a military-recruitment commercial was played in the form of a full-blown doo-wop musical number. Melancholia suggested the subversively glamorous recruiting techniques of the military: offering money for college, travel, adventure, respect, and, of course, women and sex. Although the military's specific recruitment of minorities in lower-income families could have been more explicit, Mario's desire to join the military as a way to increase his income and social and economic potential was clear. A notable performance by Equity actor Geoffrey Rivas as a homeless Vietnam veteran drew a strong parallel between the Vietnam and Iraq wars through the veteran's experience and subsequent inability to function in society. Mario's interaction with this character not only foreshadowed his future crisis, but also traced the psychological effects of warfare back to the trauma soldiers endured during World War I and the constant renaming of its effects: melancholia, shell shock, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Melancholia was most effective in its use of surreal imagery and ritual, which blended traditional cultural elements with contemporary political issues. [End Page 288]
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In a particularly poignant scene, the audience was granted access to Mario's psyche through his recurring nightmare. Wailing Iraqi women, costumed in black burkas, masks with agonized expressions, and streaming tears of fabric, haunted him as they mourned the unjust loss of their loved ones at Mario's forced hand. Mario's inescapable suicide was later presented through a hybrid ritual that blended the rites of marriage and death as all three Marios were each wed to La Muerte. In a final Brechtian device, the priest (Fidel Gomez) allowed the audience the chance to object to the union as nooses lowered from above each trembling Mario. Without any voiced objections that evening, the stage went black as a loud thud marked the end for Mario and the production.
Ultimately, Melancholia demonstrated the Latino Theater Company's commitment to producing socially relevant work while continuing to preserve and blend Chicano performance traditions to poignantly address contemporary issues. The production never lost sight of the humanity of its characters and begged its audience to object actively to the countless nuptials between La Muerte and both Americans and Iraqis that continue to be ignored.