Last Wednesday, I went with my friend and co-worker Von Marie Vazquez to see a bilingual play I wrote an advance for, “Dia de los Muertos.” Von and I speak both languages (she’s way more fluent in Spanish than I am), but we still found it hard to completely understand everything in the show.
Here, I wrote a short review on the play which was entertaining, but not as good as it could’ve been.
‘Dia de los Muertos’ held back by more than language barriers
Union City playwright Anthony Pennino’s bilingual Western “Dia de Los Muertos” has problems communicating with its audience – but not because it’s 60 percent English and 40 percent Spanish.
The play revolves around Mexican doctor Pablo (Alberto Bonilla, who also directed the show) and Irish revolutionary Devlyn (Elizabeth Inghram) taking a shared journey through dry desert and their countries’ tortured pasts.
Throughout the show, the characters speak in different languages and accents. Since the show ran at Teatro LATEA, a Latino theater in New York City, its audience should be able to understand most, if not all, of the dialogue.
The characters’ thick accents and rapid speech, however, make some of the lines incomprehensible – even to people fluent in both languages.
While Inghram’s performance as a woman struggling with the bloodshed caused by her fight for her people’s freedom is respectable, her squawky Irish brogue is often hard to understand. The accent also makes her sound insincere and distracts the audience from the controlled passion and meaning of her actual words.
Sometimes, Bonilla’s direction also held the show back. Often, multiple scenes are played out at once, which would be an effective storytelling device if the connection between the different scenes was more clearly established.
For example, one sequence features a flashback of sisters Devlyn and Bridget (Eeevin Hartsough) discussing Ireland’s fight for freedom, their brother Callum’s (Ryan Wesley Brown) philosophical discussion about the world’s beauty and human unity with a painter (translator Javier E. Gomez) and a governor’s call for a free Mexico. Only as the scene progresses does it becomes clear that Pennino is showing that both nations are historical underdogs and that people of all nationalities have the same desires and fears.
Pennino doesn’t show, however, that the countries actually have any relationship. In “Romeo and Juliet,” when the rivaling families find themselves both mourning their children who died while pursuing their forbidden love affair, they realize that they have more in common than they thought. The irony works perfectly because of the families’ conflict. In “Dia de los Muertos,” the attempt to draw comparisons between the two places ultimately falls flat.
There are, however, some very nice moments in the play. While the obviously comic character Brodie (Alexander Stine) came off more silly and laughable than truly funny, Callum was incredibly endearing and gave us moments of comedic relief as well as deep sorrow as he dies protecting his sister. I don’t know much about Brown except that I’m totally in love with him and his character.
Overall, the show is entertaining and has a good balance of romance, action, comedy and drama. As the first of a five-play series featuring Mexico and Ireland, “Dia de los Muertos” doesn’t really show the two countries’ being strongly tied together. There is hope, however, for the next four to elaborate on the themes explored in “Dia de los Muertos.”