The first thing that we have to get out of the way is that luche libre, professional wrestling in Mexico, is just as phony as the American version of professional ‘rassling, more theater than athletic competition.
Having said that, the production of "Luchadora" that opened over the weekend at First Stage is one of the most moving and important productions likely to be seen in Milwaukee this season – even though the main storyline is about something as fake as luche libre.
With a splendid cast of adults and children and a marvelous set from Sarah Hunt-Frank – all under the direction of Jeff Frank – the play fully realizes the work of playwright Alvaro Saar Rios who teaches playwriting at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
This world premiere, commissioned by First Stage, is an intricate and affectionate look into a slice of the distinguished and romantic culture of Mexico.
This play, though, is about so much more than Mexican professional wrestling. Cradled in the web of the story is a magnificent paean to a world where there is nothing that a girl can’t do. Nothing.
Offered as proof is the story of Lupita, a young Mexican girl who lives in Texas with her father, who is rooted in the male-dominated culture so common in many cultures. It is also the story of Hannah, the older sister of Lupita’s best friend, who shuns dresses and enlists only to lose her life fighting for her country as a soldier in Vietnam.
The role of Lupita (played Sunday by Bree Kazinski) is the leading role in the play. The role of Hannah (played by Lizzie Porter) is a much smaller part. But both characters deliver the exact same message with a wallop: Get outta my way because I’m headed somewhere new, and you can’t stop me.
David Flores, who dazzled in Skylight’s production of "In the Heights" as a father troubled by a headstrong daughter, reprises a similar role here with the kind of joy and sensitivity he always seems to deliver onstage.
As it always does, First Stage has created a colorful and meaningful environment from the lobby to the stage. Sixth graders from Bruce Guadalupe School created nearly 500 pieces of original Mexican paper art for the decorations. Art students at UWM created posters for the show that dotted the space. The whole thing is a dazzling shining into your eyes.
The structure of the play is told through the eyes of an adult Nana Lupita (a serene and gentle Lucinda Johnston) who is telling her life story to her grandchild (a spunky and devilish Lizzie Borg).
A confluence of current and historical events creates a climate that makes the Lupita of 1968 become the Mascara Rosa II, the reincarnation of the wrestler her father was. It’s a bold move, filled with tremors and trepidation, and it takes some convincing for her to be able to wear the pink mask, the ornate masks being the hallmark of luche libre.
Accolades for this show must be spread among the adult actors, the child cast and the specialists like Dan Katula, who plays the evil wrestler El Hijo and who designed the entrancing fight sequences, as well as Tom Reed who did the same for the boxing scene.
Special mention goes out to Kazinski, a freshman from Kettle Moraine who is descended from Polish and Mexican immigrants. Before our very eyes, she turned into a fearsome wrestler in one of the most popular events in Mexico. She never, ever lost her sense of humor or her sense of femininity. As Nellie Forbush would have said decades ago, she never stopped being a girl.
And that’s the greatest gift that Rios and First Stage give to all of us in this play.
If you are a girl, or you are related to a girl or if you know a girl, go see this play. It sets out a standard that all girls will want to live up to.
"Luchadora" runs through April 26 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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