Every fall, the dead are commemorated in a lively show of dance, music and theatre in Portland’s longest-running Day of the Dead celebration. This year, los muertos return accompanied by the legendary Don Juan, that selfish rogue who took great pleasure in defying the opponents of his romantic interests. But when the world’s most devilish romantic revisits the living on Día de los muertos, he soon discovers a new perspective on life, love and second chances.
Auda Marie 11/15/10
Wendy & Norman 11/6/10
Christy and Co. at RHS 11/5/10
¡Viva Don Juan!
Miracle Theatre’s annual Day of the Dead show is always enjoyable, bilingual, populist entertainment, with music and dance and humor strung together by a thin plot or theme. This year’s installment, directed by Olga Sanchez, is more coherent than most and, while less artistically ambitious than some of its predecessors, it is more consistently entertaining. The ghost of Don Juan (James Peck, an excellently hammy Portland newcomer), upset that his poor reputation has left him with no one to build him an altar on El Día de los Muertos, makes a deal with the devil to return for one day to join a production of a play about his life and set the record straight. There follows some philandering, some swordplay, some mockery of bourgeois cultural pretension, a lot of bawdy humor and a few very well performed songs. A good time, all told.
Rehabbing Don Juan
The details of the Miracle's annual date with death vary—this year's offering is more linear than usual, as the character-driven ¡Viva Don Juan! draws from history and language more than movement.
The premise is a little meta: The spirit of the famously lusty Don Juan (James Peck) is concerned that, because of his tarnished reputation, no one will build him an altar on the Day of the Dead. He makes a pact with the devil that earns him one more day on earth to try to salvage his legacy. To do so, he falls in with a group of actors who are producing a play about his life, where he tries to change the way his story is told.
Two of the show's most stunning moments come via song, in Spanish-language numbers from Sofia May-Cuxim and Sara Fay Goldman that promptly made me tear up even though I had no idea what was actually being said. (Do any other monolingual white people have this problem? Ladies singing in Spanish—gets me every time.) Of course, Act One should've ended after May-Cuxim brought the crowd to swift, earnest applause—that there was another scene before intermission is only one of the problem areas in a flabby script that could stand to lose a good 30 minutes. And you'll have to forgive a few plot twists ripped straight from the telenovelas: Don Juan's long-lost daughter! Etc.
But the show's strengths handily outweigh its weaknesses. James Peck is new to Portland stages, and his characterization of Don Juan is assured and conspiratorial, promptly winning the audience to his side even despite his character's well known... foibles. Song and dance numbers are lively, and jokes hit equally in English and (judging from the laughs) Spanish. If this show isn't already a holiday tradition? Make it one.
Theater review: 'Viva Don Juan' proves a surprisingly taut production
ABOUT THE DAY OF THE DEAD HOLIDAY
This is an ancient festivity that has been much transformed through the years, but which was intended in pre-Hispanic Mexico to celebrate children and the dead. Hence, the best way to describe this Mexican holiday is to say that it is a time when Mexican families remember their dead, and the continuity of life.
Two important things to know about the Mexican Day of the Dead (Día de los muertos) are: It is a holiday with a complex history, and therefore its observance varies quite a bit by region and by degree of urbanization. It is not a morbid occasion, but rather a festive time.
The original celebration can be traced to many Mesoamerican native traditions, such as the festivities held during the Aztec month of Miccailhuitontli, ritually presided by the “Lady of the Dead" (Mictecacihuatl), and dedicated to children and the dead. In the Aztec calendar, this ritual fell roughly at the end of the Gregorian month of July and the beginning of August, but in the post-conquest era it was moved by Spanish priests so that it coincided with the Christian holiday of All Saints Day (in Spanish: "Día de Todos Santos.") This was a vain effort to transform the observance from a profane to a Christian celebration. The result is that Mexicans now celebrate the day of the dead during the first two days of November, rather than at the beginning of summer. But remember the dead they still do, and the modern festivity is characterized by the traditional Mexican blend of ancient aboriginal and introduced Christian features.
Generalizing broadly, the holiday's activities consist of families (1) welcoming their dead back into their homes, and (2) visiting the graves of their close kin. At the cemetery, family members engage in sprucing up the gravesite, decorating it with flowers, setting out and enjoying a picnic, and interacting socially with other family and community members who gather there. In both cases, celebrants believe that the souls of the dead return and are all around them. Families remember the departed by telling stories about them. The meals prepared for these picnics are sumptuous, usually featuring meat dishes in spicy sauces, chocolate beverages, cookies, sugary confections in a variety of animal or skull shapes, and a special egg-batter bread ("pan de muerto," or bread of the dead). Gravesites and family altars are profusely decorated with flowers (primarily large, bright flowers such as marigolds and chrysanthemums), and adorned with religious amulets and with offerings of food, cigarettes and alcoholic beverages. Because of this warm social environment, the colorful setting, and the abundance of food, drink and good company, this commemoration of the dead has pleasant overtones for the observers, in spite of the open fatalism exhibited by all participants, whose festive interaction with both the living and the dead in an important social ritual is a way of recognizing the cycle of life and death that is human existence.
In homes, observant families create an altar and decorate it with items that they believe are beautiful and attractive to the souls of their departed ones. Such items include offerings of flowers and food, but also things that will remind the living of the departed (such as their photographs, a diploma, or an article of clothing), and the things that the dead prized and enjoyed while they lived. This is done to entice the dead and assure that their souls actually return to take part in the remembrance.
In very traditional settings, typically found only in native communities, the path from the street to the altar is actually strewn with petals to guide the returning soul to its altar and the bosom of the family. The traditional observance calls for departed children to be remembered during the first day of the festivity (the Day of the Little Angels, El día de los Angelitos), and for adults to be remembered on the second day. Traditionally, this is accompanied by a feast during the early morning hours of November the 2nd, the Day of the Dead proper, though modern urban Mexican families usually observe the Day of the Dead with only a special family supper featuring the bread of the dead. In southern Mexico, for example in the city of Puebla, it is good luck to be the one who bites into the plastic toy skeleton hidden by the baker in each rounded loaf. Friends and family members give one another gifts consisting of sugar skeletons or other items with a death motif, and the gift is more prized if the skull or skeleton is embossed with one's own name.
Another variation found in the state of Oaxaca is for the bread to be molded into the shape of a body or burial wrap, and for a face to be embedded on one end of the loaf. During the days leading up to and following the festivity, some bakeries in heavily aboriginal communities cease producing the wide range of breads that they typically sell so that they can focus on satisfying the demand for bread of the dead.
The Day of the Dead can range from being a very important cultural event, with defined social and economic responsibilities for participants (exhibiting the socially equalizing behavior that social anthropologists would call redistributive feasting, e.g. on the island of Janitzio in Michoacan state), to being a religious observance featuring actual worship of the dead (e.g., as in Cuilapan, Oaxaca, an ancient capital of the Zapotec people, who venerated their ancestors and whose descendants do so to this day, an example of many traditional practices that Spanish priests pretend not to notice), to simply being a uniquely Mexican holiday characterized by special foods and confections (the case in all large Mexican cities.) In general, the more urban the setting within Mexico the less religious and cultural importance is retained by observants, while the more rural and Indian the locality the greater the religious and economic import of the holiday. Because of this, this observance is usually of greater social importance in southern Mexico than in the northern part of the country.
Miracle Theatre Group is pleased to display an exhibit of ofrendas (altars) created by local Latino artists in celebration of Día de los muertos (Day of the Dead). The exhibit, curated by Pepe Moscoso of FusionArte and sponsored by the Consulate of Mexico in Portland, is free and open to the public.
Los Porteños is a Portland-area Latino writers group of emerging and established fiction writers, journalists, bloggers, dramatists and poets. Established in 2007 and hosted by Miracle Theatre Group, the group meets regularly to share new work to develop the skills and art of each writer. 2010 marks the group’s third Día de los muertos literary reading.
Frank Delgado , Catherine Evleshin, Joann Farías. Alberto Moreno. Emma Oliver, Ivonne Saed , Cindy Williams Gutiérrez
James Peck … Don Juan
Sara Fay Goldman … Isabel
Nurys Herrera … Margarita
Sofia May Cuxim … Brigida
Enrique E. Andrade … Calixto
Matt Volner … Jaime
Sarah Peters … Francine
Olga Sanchez … Director
Hal Logan … Musical Director/Sound Designer
Mark Haack … Scenic Designer
Dug Martell … Lighting Designer
Maria Ferrin … Costume Designer/Choreographer
Sarah Lydecker … Prop Master
Lisa Coye … Dramaturge
Gavin Hales … Stage Manager
Rebecca Lewis … Carpenter
Wailana Kalama … Sound Technician
Sylvia Malán and Sarah Hinds … House Managers
Miracle Theatre Group 425 SE 6th Avenue Portland, Oregon 97214 503-236-7253
Miracle Theatre Group