Bless Me, Ultima Marks the Return of Teatro Bravo! to Downtown Phoenix
Note: Tonight, Thursday, October 17, at 7 p.m., is a pay-what-you-can performance of Bless Me, Ultima. Donations will be accepted at the door. See the end of this post for location details.
Aby Rouhi Photography From left: Ernesto Ortiz; Ryan Michael Bernardino; Dulce Juarez, M.Ed.; and (lying down) Greta Skelly, in Bless Me, Ultima
The setup: This week, Curtains reviews a stage version of a famous, popular, critically acclaimed 1972 novel that . . . uh, I haven't read. The good news is that I now know about groundbreaking Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya and have a terrific list of 10 or so books to catch up on.
Anaya adapted his first novel, Bless Me, Ultima, for the stage himself, so at least we can be confident that the play's content is true to his intentions. It was also released as a film earlier this year, if you need even more immersion.
See also: Lorca in a Green Dress: Intense, Well-Crafted Metadrama from Teatro Bravo!
The execution: Teatro Bravo! has a lovely home now as a resident company in Black Theatre Troupe's Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center that opened in February and enables BTT to continue its mission of fostering multicultural arts. The intimate, floor-level stage is wide, with audience seating gently sloping upward and stretching from one end to the other, so that no seats are very far from the action.
Kristin Blatchford has created a simple set that suits Ultima's episodic narrative well. A key piece is a sort of abstract archway that sometimes looks like sandstone and, under other lighting, appears to be covered with loose pages from a book, manuscript, or letters. In addition to having symbolic meaning, it serves as a doorway, often the only object that establishes a building or room onstage.
Though all the scene changes are swift and well-choreographed, it feels as though the cast is moving that archway around constantly. However, it represents the many passages of the main character, a young boy named Tony Marez, and the sometimes challenging steps he must take growing up under the influence of multiple cultures and faiths, so there is a reason. Carmen Guerrero's musical direction also makes those transitional moments unique and meaningful.
Speaking of living life in a slower, more relaxed rhythm, the theater is wonderfully atmospheric during preshow, that period after the doors are opened for seating and before the play officially begins. A recording of thunder and rain plays as changing light plays over the set and vague, glistening raindrops pop around on the backdrop. If you're a bit early, it's a great way to adjust your mood and metabolism and get ready for a fascinating story.