In 1936, as the story goes, talented artist of modest means Pedro Linares woke from a fever dream beset by visions of impossible creatures that soon found lasting fame as psychedelic folk art known as alebrijes.
In Milagro Theatre's production of the same name, a young bride (Yesenia Lopez) is sent back in time to view the origins of the Day-Glo beasties firsthand. We're introduced to Pedro's story from her perspective, shocked to find herself sliding into the consciousness of the artist's lost love, Lillian. Bursts of español arrive as mellifluous emotive flourish, and though untranslated the sentiment is easily understood given the situation.
Some intermittent Spanglish fusillades can sometimes feel like an uneasy compromise between concern for cultural authenticity and approachability for the gringo-trending crowds. However, director and playwright Georgina Escobar's whip-smart script slyly addresses this issue. Beyond her powers to convey meaning via narrative context, Escobar emphasizes the inherent silliness of any presumed lingual divide by throwing the spotlight on Pedro's three pets: the comically preening rooster Felipe (Giovanni Alva), a haughty Hepburn-limning duck named Florinda (Tara Hershberger) and fey, goth housecat Bartolome (Matthew Sepeda in a bravura turn).
If the characters of this barnyard tribunal feel more carefully developed than the humans, that seems by design—after all, the play isn't called ¡Linares! While the pair of birds crow and quack in loving protection of their owner, Bartolome prowls the stage with sleek authority thanks to Sepeda's silky, captivating performance.
Once the animals are called upon to guide their owner's return from the land of the dead, what should be their triumphant reappearance falls a bit flat. Convention probably demands our actualized alebrijes arrive slathered in phosphorescent paint, the intended effect at times seems compromised by too many neon jungles associated with raves or Coco costumes. Honestly, the creatures were more vivid in those unlit moments because myths grow in the dark.
While ¡Alebrijes! may have its limits, the production still nimbly straddles the obligations to authenticity owed to any brisk cultural history and the familiar rhythms fueling time-swept rom-coms. Escobar's direction manages to tease genuine chills amid ecstatic celebration of the fantastical. At its heart, though, ¡Alebrijes! is about the alebrijes—an appreciation for art's capacity to transcend the mortality of its creator. For all the Dia de los Muertos trappings, the play strives not to memorialize our ancestors so much as admire what they have wrought. Ars longa, vita brevis. Or, as Pedro likes to say, "Til death do us art."
SEE IT: ¡Alebrijes! A Dia de Muertos Tale plays at Milagro Theatre, 525 SE Stark St., milagro.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, Nov. 1-11. $20-$27.