Faith Versus Progress

A Mexican town in 1927 is the site of a conflict over education in Beowulf Alley's fine new production

Are we defined by our stories, or by our actions?

That's a question posed by a character in the new Gavin Kayner play Noche de los Muertos, set toward the end of the Mexican revolutionary period. The storytellers are adherents to the Catholic church; the men and women of action are the secularists behind the revolution. Which of those two forces, incompatible when pushed to their heights of fervor, would set the course for 20th-century Mexico?

Noche de los Muertos is the latest offering from Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, and it opened just in time for the Day of the Dead, a time to honor one's ancestors, who are said to visit the altars we prepare and nibble on the snacks we leave, although, unlike Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, they leave nothing in return; having given life to us some decades before seems a sufficient enough gesture.

Noche is set on the Day of the Dead in 1927 in the town of Magdalena, not far south of Nogales. A young schoolteacher and her entourage have arrived to take over public education from the local priest, one of only about 40 in Mexico who have not yet been killed or driven from their posts by the post-revolutionary government and its supporters. But Catholic partisanship remains strong in rural areas and frontier towns like Magdalena, and the priest refuses to give up his post. In his opinion, and that of supporters like the woman who runs the local cantina, it's the teacher who must be driven out.

Seven decades later, Catholicism continues to choke many progressive movements in Mexico; only this year has legislation in the capital city liberalizing divorce and abortion laws survived judicial review, despite continuing conservative opposition. Things aren't much better here north of the border, with religious groups continuing to demonize homosexuals through legislation, and pushing to include creation myths in school science texts. Whatever good that faith may produce within individuals is being negated by its regressive incursions into secular society.

Today, the arguments tend to take the form of school-board harangues and testy books by the likes of Christopher Hitchens. But in 1927 Mexico, partisans of either side argued with bullets, knives and ropes.

Kayner's play is even-handed enough to generate sympathy for Magdalena's faith-based community, if not for its actions. As the cantina owner, Palancha, notes, death is no barrier to a believer's communion with dead loved ones, but forgetting is. For Palancha, forgetting one's family, one's stories, one's (Catholic) culture would be catastrophic, and the arrival of the young teacher, Catalina, means potential disaster.

On the other hand, Catalina and her poet-boyfriend, Renaldo, simply want to modernize Mexico and raise the intellectual level of its downtrodden people. Yet they do not represent the entire revolution; their traveling companions, Tomas and Irma, were fighters, not thinkers. They are the rougher, rural side of social change, and indeed, Tomas in some ways had been little more than a bandit with a higher calling. He did something terrible along the way, and now he tries to drink the memories away, rendering him incapable of helping Catalina when she needs him.

Who among these people, including the defiant, regressive priest, is truly righteous? Kayner puts them to the test, and finds them wanting in various ways. It's a fine script that digs into these characters' psyches and motivations with integrity and understanding, and never for a moment smacks of Anglo literary tourism.

The Beowulf Alley production, under the swift, fluid direction of Sheldon Metz, takes these characters and their situation seriously. The cast is fine, but the most consistent and perceptive work comes from Angelica Rodenbeck as Irma and Janet Henderson as Palancha--honest, insightful and always natural in their delivery.

The rest of the cast members--Esteban Oropeza, Jordana Franco, Tenoch Gomez and Anthony Auriemma--also fare well, although some of their line delivery is rather flat when the dialogue grows expository or abstract. Yet they all gain fluency with the script's intensification of emotion, which means that the heightened second act comes off especially well.

Mime Caroline Latron is a mesmerizing presence as a Day of the Dead "bone man" come to life, and guitarist/sound designer Alex Greengard provides a perfectly appropriate, mostly live score. The set design, by Joel Charles, artfully crams four realistic rooms onto the stage all at once, and if the result in a couple of scenes is rather claustrophobic, this is not a problem when the action is able to open up into the downstage area. The costumes by Norma Kayner and Liz Rollman handily evoke the era, and contribute to a production that is praiseworthy in every respect.

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