By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
We recently moved from Ashland, Oregon, a city known world-wide for theater, to Saratoga, California, located in Silicon Valley, which is known world-wide for cutting-edge technology. We have been delighted to find that side-by-side with the internet giants, theater is thriving around here, from small experimental groups to large venue homes to touring Broadway productions. One special niche theater is Teatro Visión.
Teatro Visión’s performances are in the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose. San Jose has a population of nearly a million and was founded in the 18th century when California was still part of Mexico; its population is one-third Hispanic and the Mexican Heritage Plaza is located in a predominantly Chicano area. Teatro Visión is now part of the School of Arts and Culture, an independent nonprofit that provides classes in Mexican music and other arts to children and adults in the surrounding communities. It was founded as Teatro Huipil in 1984 by Women in Teatro, a network drawn from Chicano theaters around California.
The theater, which seats 500 people in a very steep stadium formation, has to date produced over 60 plays – most in Spanish – attended cumulatively by an audience of over 150,000 people. Supratitles are provided in both English and Spanish. The ticket prices are extremely low, so virtually all community members can afford to attend. And the support of a multitude of government agencies, foundations, private corporations and individual donors allow the theater to continue top-notch programs including world premieres.
Our introduction to Teatro Visión was at a production of a play in Spanish called Macario that had premiered 5 years ago and has been presented by popular demand in subsequent years. This musical is partly based on the novel by B. Traven, the pen name of a mysterious author who was foreign-born but lived in Mexico most of his life and died in Mexico City in 1969. He is the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and his novel Macario was named by the New York Times as the best short story of 1953. The play is also partly based on the 1960 film Macario, the first Mexican film nominated for an academy award. The novel and screenplay were heavily adapted for the stage by Evelina Fernández and Teatro Visión. The adaptation added badly needed color, humor, and wonderful music to the grim black-and-white film version. The Teatro Visión version is a charming rendition of the same story, retaining the intensity of the messages.
The story takes place in two acts in colonial Mexico. Macario is an impoverished wood cutter whose family, his hard-working laundress wife and five children, are grateful for what they have but always hungry. Macario, who has been hungry from birth, is tantalized by a parade of roasted turkeys being prepared for the Day-of-the-Dead celebrations of the nobility. He yearns for a roasted turkey to devour by himself – a seemingly impossible dream.
When he decides to stop eating entirely, his frantic wife, after being short-changed by one of her Spanish nobility clients, agonizes for a while and then steals a turkey, prepares it and presents it to Macario. Macario hides in a wood with the turkey and is first tempted to share it with a caballero, the devil in disguise, in exchange for money, and then by a pilgrim to save his soul. Finally when confronted by Death himself, Macario agrees to split it exactly in half, and they eat it at the same time. In return, Death gives Macario a gourd full of a potion, a drop of which can save gravely ill people from death as long as Macario observes Death standing at the foot of the bed. An appearance at the head of the bed means the person belongs to Death.
At the beginning of the second act, Macario is under the tutelage of one the nobles and has become very wealthy by selling his services to families of the ill. Although some are claimed by Death, many are resuscitated and richly reward Macario and his noble sponsor. The family is no longer hungry, are well dressed and live in a huge mansion in which they are amusingly continually becoming lost. All is going well until the Inquisition hears about Macario. Macario, warned that they are coming, gives one vial of his secret potion to his wife to hide. The agents of the inquisition destroy the remaining containers of the liquid and proclaim Macario a fraud or a brujo – either of which has a death penalty performed in painful and public execution. They throw Macario in prison to be tortured until he confesses.
After testing his knowledge of the fate of some apparently gravely ill people chosen for this examination, the Inquisitors determine he is not a fraud but a warlock. But just as they are about to execute him, the Viceroy’s young son becomes very ill and the Viceroy summons Macario for a cure. He tells him that if he saves his son he will go free but if his son dies, so will Macario. Macario’s wife bribes the guards to visit him and provides him with the last vial of curative liquid. Ready to save the child, Macario enters the bed chamber to find Death standing at the head of the bed. Macario tries to push Death to the foot of the bed and pleads with Death to allow him to save the child. But Death stands firm. Macario flees.
Does Macario survive? Well, we’re not going to tell you. You’ll have to come to Teatro Visión during the next Day of the Dead season to see and hear for yourself. If you do, you’ll experience truly emotional music and voices and you’ll find yourself thinking you’re back in Mexico. The language surrounding you will primarily be Spanish, many women are elegantly dressed in very high stiletto heel shoes, and the snacks being served at intermission are a reminder of what you find in Oaxaca.
The night we attended, the production was followed by a gala featuring music, dancing and many traditional dishes. We can’t promise you a gala at other performances, but we can promise you highly professional acting, choreography, and orchestration, wonderful sets and costumes, and a performance that will linger in your mind for a long time.