Elizabeth huffman

“Amor Añejo”: Into the Beyond, With Pain and Laughter

Milagro's latest Dia de Muertos tale is a magnificent journey to the afterlife.

In Labyrinth of Solitude, the legendary Mexican poet Octavio Paz writes, “Our relationship with death is intimate. More intimate perhaps, than any other people.” Those words echo through Amor Añejo, a Día de Muertos-inspired tale of bereavement and rebirth making its debut at Milagro Theatre. It’s an elegy—and more. The story flows from a single death that leaves everything from pain to joy to absurdity in its wake.

Love and Death: Yolanda Porter and Ricardo Vazuez in Milagro Theatre’s Amor Anejo. Photo: Russell J Young

Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play. At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly, it invites us to touch the life of Hector (Ricardo Vazquez), a painter who refuses to accept the death of his wife, Rosalita (Yolanda Porter). Hector believes that building an altar for Dia de Muertos allows the dead to fleetingly visit the land of the living, yet he can’t bring himself to build an altar for Rosalita because he can’t admit that she is gone. Perversely and poetically, her ability to return depends on whether or not he can acknowledge her absence.

Conceived by director Elizabeth Huffman and developed with the cast in rehearsals, Amor Añejo eschews formulaic plotting in favor of a more naturalistic, anecdotal approach as it reveals the history of Hector and Rosalita’s marriage in flashbacks. Since seeing the play, I’ve found myself dwelling less on character arcs than on details, like the Frog necklace Hector gives Rosalita (a reference to her passion for biology) or Rosalita’s late-in-life lament as she gazes into a mirror (“Where did that sad, middle-aged woman come from?” she wonders aloud).

Plays that span many years risk sacrificing detail for scope. Yet no matter how much time passes in Amor Añejo, you never feel as if we are looking at a vast, indistinct timeline—you feel as if you are flipping through a photo album, partly because much of the play unfolds in intimate scenes that take place at Hector and Rosalita’s dining table.

In one, their son, Paco (Carlos Manzano), is a whining child, complaining that his brother nearly broke his guitar; in another, he is an embittered young man, declaring that he will never attend a music conservatory. The images that signal the passage of time (like the A for anarchy on the back of the older Paco’s black vest) are so specific you never feel as if we are observing the family from afar — you feel as if you are living in their memories, moment to moment.

A dance with the dead in Amor Anejo at Milagro. Photo: Russell J Young

While the play’s flashbacks are a reminder of all that Hector has lost, Amor Añejo doesn’t surrender to the tide of grief. When Rosalita travels from this world to the next, she is greeted by galumphing characters in oversized masks who perform a heavy-footed dance, moving as if they have bricks strapped to their feet. It’s an uproarious sight and its inclusion in a story steeped in anguish makes a statement: that loss and happiness are not separate entities. They are part of a single continuum of feeling and to embrace one is to embrace the other — which is what Hector must do if Rosalita’s spirit is to find peace.

I wish that the play made more of Hector’s struggle. While the moments when he speaks to Rosalita — willing her to be with him, knowing that she is not — are haunting, his inner journey is the one part of the story that seems rushed. But that doesn’t dilute Amor Añejo’s sweet, surreal power. Like so many of Milagro’s plays, it is witty, colorful and impassioned. The idea that the people we lose always watch over us lost its novelty long ago, but Amor Añejo gives new weight to those words. The Rosalita who lingers after death may be a ghost or an imagining, but the play reminds you that one thing matters above all: she exists.

‘Watsonville’: What’s old is new

Milagro's revival of Cherríe Moraga's 1990s play about a volatile strike in a California cannery feels like it's lifted from today's headlines

Let’s do the time warp again. Cherríe Moraga’s Watsonville: Some Place Not Here, which opened Friday night at Milagro Theatre, premiered in 1996 and is based loosely on events that took place in the mid-to-late 1980s. But you’ll be excused if you think it’s ripped from today’s headlines or incendiary tweets. This is no warm-and-fuzzy trip down Nostalgia Lane. It’s more Good Lord, here we go again.

Moraga’s play, a stand-alone drama that is also the final chapter in a trilogy including Heroes and Saints and Circle in the Dark, is a messy, sprawling thing that overcomes its structural problems with an overriding passion and declaration of ugly truths (and a few redeeming ones). Its greatest achievement is to create believable and sympathetic characters who are swept up in situations that are usually viewed in political terms – as “problems,” not as people. For the characters in Watsonville the great social drama of a sharp cultural clash is both political and the everyday stuff they have to deal with as they lead their lives.

Bunnie Rivera as Dolores, reluctant radical. Photo: Russell J Young

Set amid a two-year-long strike by cannery workers in the Pajaro Valley farm town of Watsonville in California’s Santa Cruz County, the play ripples with issues that have gained more and more urgency since the right-wing ascendancy that culminated in the national elections of 2016 and has been flexing its muscles ever since. Among them:

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DramaWatch: Fences & Frogs

The week on stage features an August Wilson classic, a revival of a children's hit, Salt, Swans, Clowns, labor struggles, Todd Van Voris solo

Portland Playhouse has emerged over the past decade as one of the city’s top theaters for a variety of reasons: energetic young leadership, an invitingly casual atmosphere, and early sponsorship that resulted in free beer.

But you might think of it as The House That August Wilson Built. After all, it was a 2010 production of Wilson’s Radio Golf that first amplified the buzz about the young company beyond theater cognoscenti. Since then the Playhouse has had repeated success with Wilson’s majestic depictions of hardscrabble lives in the predominantly African American Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Lester Purry stars as former baseball hero Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s “Fences.” Portland Playhouse photo

The production of Fences opening this weekend is the seventh of Wilson’s epic century cycle of plays to be staged by Portland Playhouse. The story of an ex-baseball star toiling as a garbage man, it deals with the challenges of identity and self-respect for black people in the 1950s. It’s Wilson’s greatest hit, a Pulitzer and Tony winner (and a Denzel vehicle), so Wilson fans won’t want to miss it, and neither should those who don’t yet know the joy. Much more conventionally structured than his other, more discursively poetic works, this is an ideal introduction to Wilson’s enduring themes and settings.

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