Mitos, Suenos y Encuentros | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Mitos, Suenos y Encuentros 

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Grupo Zopilote and Latino Chicago Theater Company

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum

Revisionist history certainly seems to be the rage these days--just look at the flood of films, plays, and books on Columbus's voyages to the Americas. Such reclamations of history can be exciting and important events, as long-silenced cultures are finally given voice.

Mitos, suenos, y encuentros ("Myths, Dreams, and Encounters"), a collaboration between Mexico's Grupo Zopilote and Latino Chicago Theater Company, attempts a "critical and satirical examination of the history and people of the Americas and the 500-year-old myth of discovery," according to the program. Using the simplest of means--a few costumes, even fewer props, seven actors, and three musicians--playwright Ignacio Betancourt takes on, among other things, the invasions of Columbus and Cortez, the Christianization of America's indigenous people by the Spanish, and the problems facing Mexican Americans in contemporary U.S. society.

Stylistically, this production is reminiscent of high school social-studies presentations. A simple historical narrative introduces a broadly satirical acting out of the event described. An actor becomes Cortez by putting on a polystyrene Spanish helmet. Another actor becomes Montezuma by donning a simple silk robe and a headdress of dime-store feathers. When it succeeds, this intentional hokiness adds an element of delight to otherwise hopelessly dry material.

Betancourt uses anachronism to his advantage. For example, Columbus pillages the new lands by filling Marshall Field bags with burritos and "chocolate from an Indian named Hershey." A 17th-century slave successfully woos his otherwise contemptuous master by summoning a mariachi band to his side. Moments like these successfully condense many levels of criticism in a single moment. The image of Columbus carting off his booty in a Marshall Field bag not only links Columbus to the kind of overindulgence associated with expensive department stores but calls attention to our ongoing exploitation of developing nations to satisfy consumer demands.

However, only a few moments in Mitos, suenos, y encuentros exhibit such theatrical and critical complexity. Most of the time the parallels drawn and insights achieved are disappointingly obvious. In order to dramatize the desecration of indigenous gods by the Spanish, for example, two actors stand onstage like statues and two other actors dressed as Spanish soldiers angrily knock them to the ground. Then two actors dressed as indigenous Mexicans enter, kill the Spanish, and carry the statues offstage lovingly. The scene does little more than point out that the Spanish did a terrible thing--which is certainly true but doesn't get us very far.

Fleshed out, the scene might have worked. But Betancourt doesn't give us much context for the action. Without any elucidation of the religions the Spanish eradicated, the statues seem generic icons, and their subsequent desecration carries little weight.

This scene, like many others, focuses on the abuses by the Spanish rather than on the uniqueness and inherent worth of the indigenous culture. And in this way history is defined once again in terms of the conquering oppressors, whose actions dictate the unfolding of the narrative--a notion that reinforces the Eurocentrism this production would like to overthrow.


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