Shakespeare’s altar ego

Milagro's multilingual historical fiction meets the Bard on his Day of the Deathbed

What do you put on a Dia de los Muertos altar? Candles, claroFlowers, por supuesto. But there’s a place, too, for more surprising stuff. Like a Pez dispenser, say, or a shoe. Anything goes, assuming it means something significant about the dead person being honored, to the living person who put it there. And once it’s placed, it stays. More pieces may be added, but typically, nothing is taken away.

The same principle is at play in Milagro Theatre‘s O Romeo, a much-if-n0t-all-encompassing bilingual homage to Shakespeare that runs through Sunday. It arranges a loving clutter of his plays’ characters around the figure of a dying Bard to perform a pageant of remembrance and reimagination. As O Romeo‘s Shakespeare (Anthony Green) takes to his deathbed, he’s visited by specters from his writings.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewOphelia (Rebecca Ridenour), in a white nightie, hands out herbs and flowers to baffled onlookers. Titania (Tara Hershberger) flits around playing a flute. A composite jester dubbed “Yorick” (Jake Wiest) jokes and tumbles in the irreverent fashion Shakespeare’s fools favor. Lady Macbeth (Danielle Chaves) and Richard III (Enrique E. Andrade) preen haughtily and sing opera while they collude on a sinister scheme to destroy Shakespeare’s writings and exonerate their blighted names. Polonius (Arlena Barnes) pontificates, Hamlet (Heath Hyun-Houghton) broods … and we’re made to understand that one more young joven that Shakespeare deems “Romeo” is actually—in a twist the Bard can’t emotionally process—his nonfictional son Hamnet (Otniel Henig), who died young.

It's a multilingual, time-shifting whirl. Photo: Russell J Young

It’s a multilingual, time-shifting whirl. Photo: Russell J Young

Meanwhile, in Milagro’s adjacent Zócalo Community Space, visitors can browse a collection of themed altars designed by local artists from Latino collective FusionArte. A community memorial altar is filled with photos of the recently passed—some installed with the piece, some added since by visitors. A children’s altar, called Holy Innocents, is adorned with toys and a little bank where, as a token, one could leave a coin. And then there’s Shakespeare’s altar, where a skeleton decked out in Elizabethan garb reclines amid red roses on a rollable gurney.

“Even though he’s dead, we just keep rolling him out,” quipped Milagro artist, host and docent Vincente Guzman-Orozco to a patron, an apt comment for a show that essentially reanimates the Bard to play with him. The show, like an altar, is a monument of remembrance, full of an array of representations that are open to interpretation. It differs from a historical retelling in the same way that the items on a day-of-the-dead altar differ from the artifacts in a museum exhibit.

O Romeo‘s biggest fictional flourishes are giving him a Jewish/Spanish house servant named Rifke (Sofia May-Cuxim), and imagining that his final masterpiece-in-progress was a play set in “the new world” that’s since become Mexico. Shakespeare’s spectral characters perform a condensed version of this pretend play, complete with Aztec feather headdresses, within the second act. Aesthetically, it’s exciting. Historically, of course, it’s fast and loose.

This practice of casting real-life historical figures as themselves in a fictitious narrative has obvious pros and cons. It risks rewriting or distorting public perception of history, yet it endeavors to enliven history’s great personalities in a way that renews contemporary audiences’ otherwise flagging interest. The theory is, if you enjoy a historical figure’s persona as interpreted in an entertaining fictional context, you may be able to transfer that enjoyment to the (otherwise dry) process of learning that figure’s actual history.

How often it pans out that way is impossible to say. For instance, how many teens-at-heart who enjoyed Freud and Socrates in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure went on to research their philosophies, versus how many simply giggled and picked up the boys’ bad habit of pronouncing Socrates “So crates?” And how many viewers of the Oscar-winning 1998 film Shakespeare in Love understood it as fiction, versus leaving the theater half-believing that Shakespeare had an affair with Gwyneth Paltrow? For my part, when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna—similar to O Romeo in that it describes famous historical figures Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera through the eyes of their fictitious house servant—I did feel its intended effect: History brought to life. Humanity brought to legends. I might even go back and read the referenced history. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself.

The Complete Works Project’s plea to all local theater companies to put on Bard-centric shows caught Milagro at a convenient moment, as the theater sought a theme for its longstanding annual Dia de los Muertos pageant. A pairing of the two ideas seemed natural to devisor/director Olga Sanchez, and she spent about seven weeks developing it with the cast. Though O Romeo, as a newly devised piece, doesn’t help Complete Works meet its quota of plays penned by Shakespeare, it’s definitely (ahem) “in the spirit” of the effort.

Speaking of spirits … though apparently unintentional, O Romeo‘s parallels to Dickens’ Christmas Carol are nearly impossible to ignore. An elderly man, hardened by life’s losses, has a long lucid dream in his bedchamber, where he’s visited by a succession of spirits who ply him to new understandings. This trebles the show’s seasonal relevance to cover the current Shakespeare push, the just-ended Day of the Dead, and the upcoming Christmas.

Like many of Milagro’s shows over the years, O Romeo gives Spanish-speaking and bilingual audiences more for their money than only-English speakers. (In the past couple of years, Milagro has begun projecting translations during some, but not all, shows. This one doesn’t have ’em.) Rifke’s asides and jokes often earn a laugh in her native tongue without being repeated in English. According to the largely bilingual cast, modern Spanish speakers actually have an advantage over their English-only contemporaries when it comes to appreciating translations of Shakespeare. “Spanish has remained more consistent since Shakespeare’s time, while English has changed more,” explained actor Sofia May-Cuxim during a talkback. “So what we hear in translations of Shakespeare, is closer to what we’re still saying in Spanish.”

But—also signature Milagro—the show is dreamy and impressionistic enough that it doesn’t require complete comprehension for general enjoyment. Its best moments are musical, mysterious, or both. The ensemble sings beautifully and plays Amir Shirazi’s arrangements and originals adeptly, and dual leads Green and May-Cuxim conjure poignant emotion—spine-tingling and near tears—at key moments in the story. Language may be left-brained, but this pageantry and sentiment feels right.

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