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Visionary of the afterlife

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One of the more contentious topics in art history is how the Mexican artist Pedro Linares dreamed up the sculptures of mythical creatures known as alebrijes. The most likely version of the story is that Linares was commissioned to create alebrijes for a party at the San Carlos Arts Academy. But a more entertaining tale suggests that these beasts came to him in a dream while he was ill during the 1930s.

Robi Arce stars in “Alibrijes!,” Milagro’s latest Die de Muertos production, based on the Mexican artist Pedro Linares. Photo: Russell J. Young

That saga informs ¡Alebrijes!, an eccentric and moving play written and directed by Georgina Escobar and currently onstage at Milagro. An offbeat blend of magical realism and plain old realism, ¡Alebrijes! does not always fully realize its ambitions, but is nevertheless both poignant and excitingly strange—a blast of visual wonderment that pokes fun at the very idea of death without ever fully making light of it.

After a clever present-day prologue, the play introduces us to Pedro (Robi Arce), whose brother Manuel (Matthew Sepeda) dies in a train accident during the first act. Unmoored by grief, Pedro poisons himself in the hope of convincing the powerful La Meurte (Patricia Alivetz) to free Manuel from the afterlife. But his gamble thrusts him into a world somewhere between the living and the dead, forcing him to confront the inevitability of death and his ignored artistic potential.

Despite its somber undertones, ¡Alebrijes! is largely a screwball comedy. Arce is a physically astounding performer—he bends his limbs like a human Gumby, moving effortlessly through a series of delightful pratfalls. Equally impressive is Sepeda, who also plays the pivotal role of Pedro’s cat Bartolome with a perfectly arched back and a lofty demeanor that will be familiar to feline owners in the audience.

Milagro’s “Alibrijes!” is part screwball comedy, part ravishing spectacle. Photo: Russell J. Young

¡Alebrijes! also succeeds as a ravishing visual spectacle. As Pedro drifts further and further from reality, we behold many astounding visions, from a cloud of steam that envelops first Pedro and then the audience to a dazzling array of animal costumes (the best prop in the play is a set of orange glow-in-the dark cat claws). Milagro’s stage may be small, but ¡Alebrijes! features designs as meticulous and gorgeous as anything you could encounter at Artists Rep or Portland Center Stage.

There are times when the play’s narrative scope feels limited—some of its subplots are one-dimensional (particularly a formulaic will-they-won’t-they storyline involving Pedro and the love of his life, played by Yesenia Lopez). But ¡Alebrijes! thoroughly makes up for its missteps with a stunning coda that demolishes the barrier between the characters and the audience. For one moment, you are not only united with Pedro and his comrades, but given the privilege of joining them in a beautiful place—a privilege that is a perfect conclusion to a dazzling journey.

¡Alebrijes! plays at Milagro. Tickets and scheduling information here: https://milagro.org/event/alebrijes/.

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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