BWW Reviews: The 2014 FIESTA MELODRAMA Delivers Good, Old-Fashioned Fun
The Santa Fe Playhouse is the oldest, continuously running community theater west of the Mississippi and summer would not be complete without its production of the FIESTA MELODRAMA. First performed in 1919 and reinvented each year by an anonymous group of local writers, the melodrama has established itself as a good natured, satirical send-up of some of the most noteworthy personalities, eccentricities and scandals in the City Different during the previous twelve months.
Based on the standard elements of traditional melodrama, good and evil are embodied in stock characters, who operate within a simplified moral universe - a clearly defined villain, a hero or heroine who either escapes or is rescued from his evil clutches, various 'good' and 'bad' back-up characters and the inevitable happy ending.
In keeping with classic custom, the audience is urged to actively participate in the action by hissing, booing, cheering and shouting, as the spirit moves them. This interaction works both ways and the cast has the fun of breaking the fourth wall by also interacting directly with the audience.
This year's melodrama is set on a train - with a cleverly designed set that revolves, giving the impression of different train cars and at the same time avoiding visual stagnation. The 'story' blurs past and present, cheerfully mixing up the early days of New Mexico statehood, with the current Governor, Susanna Martinez, along with pregnant teenagers, Crossfit, therapeutic massage and the head of Zozobra. (For anyone who doesn't live here, Zozobra is a 50 foot high marionette, known as Old Man Gloom, traditionally burned each year since 1924, at the beginning of fiestas, to banish the woes of the year gone by.)
The action revolves around Martinez, hilariously presented as a larger-than-life caricature (Toothanna Dinero) and played with infectious gusto and not the slightest attempt at gender modification, by Felix Cordova. Cordova is a big man, who dominates the stage in an unforgettable combination of a short, Republican red dress, blue cardigan and heavy duty men's hiking boots. (S)he is accompanied by a Rasputin-like handler and campaign manager (Namaste Ne-erdoowell-Smith) played with villainous glee by Scott Shuker, who is plotting to hijack the train, in order to stop Zozobra's head from reaching Santa Fe for the ritual burning and thus preventing everyone's gloom from being dispelled.
What happens along the way involves the train driver, Bertjack Baggypants (Malcolm Morgan), his pretty, aerobic-crazed daughter, Betty Bulletproof Baggypants, the heroine (Shawna Howley) and a naive schoolteacher, Samuel El Jackson, the hero (Antony Berzack) who is working on the train in order to supplement his meager teacher's salary.
Since, as stated in the program, the show is conceived and written by 'an anonymous group of infighting informants with inside information,' their anonymity grants them the freedom to indulge in political incorrectness, something they take full advantage of all the way through. And, although wrapped in humorous packaging, observations about Martinez's political agenda, her corporate backers and the sorry state of education in New Mexico, are all spot on. Martinez herself declares that the only words she needs to know how to read, are the ones displayed on signs carried by protestors at demonstrations, so that she will be able to identify the people to be arrested later on.
Other targets, such as Albuquerque police brutality and drunk driving accidents in Santa Fe, come across as more painful than funny and the inconsistency of the humor isn't helped by a couple of onstage bystanders, who regularly interrupt with disparaging remarks about the quality of the show.
In spite of the show's weaker elements, the entire cast is solidly professional and the characters, who are clearly enjoying themselves enormously, work together and support each other as a team. This year's production, directed by Andy Primm, definitely offers some welcome relief from all the upheaval and mayhem going on in the world. So do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a dose of laughter therapy, before the FIESTA MELODRAMA closes on September 7th.
For more info, visit www.santafeplayhouse.org
Photo courtesy of Lynn Roylance
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