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Luchadora!
by Alvaro Saar Rios
Directed by Anna Skidis Vargas
Mustard Seed Theatre with Theatre Nuevo
June 3, 2018

Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre/Theatre Nuevo

The final production in Mustard Seed Theatre’s  2017-2018 season is a collaboration with Theatre Nuevo, bringing a story to the stage that is at once informative, fascinating, and inspiring. Luchadora! tells a compelling story with memorable characters and an impressive cast. It’s a story that’s highly specific, focusing on a particular family and cultural experience, with universal themes of love, determination, and acceptance.

The story is told in flashback, with the characters from the present reacting to the situations from the past as the story unfolds. In present-day Milwaukee, Nana Lupita (Carmen Garcia) tells her granddaughter Vanessa (Isabel Garcia) a story that turns out to have a great deal of relevance to Vanessa’s current situation. Flashing back to Texas in 1968, Nana Lupita recounts a significant time in her life, and events that shaped the person she is today. The teenage, Mexican-American Lupita (Thalia Cruz) works for her father (Rahamses Galvan) selling flowers along with her German-American friends, the brother and sister Leopold (Cassidy Flynn) and Liesl (Ashley Skaggs). Lupita’s father, who struggles with chronic back pain, sends Lupita to deliver a briefcase to a woman known as The Mask Maker (Cassandra Lopez), who makes the distinctive masks used in lucha libre–Mexican professional wrestling. The wrestlers–called luchadors–are compared to superheroes, with a mystique about them and a highly devoted fan following. Whent the champion luchador El Hijo (Carl Overly, Jr.) issues a challenge to a legendary luchador who once challenged his father–also a champion–and then disappeared, a long-held secret threatens to be discovered as Lupita looks for answers, a purpose for her life, and a closer connection to her father.  Essentially, that’s the set-up. There’s also an a connecting subplot involving perceived roles of women in society, Leopold and Liesl’s older sister who ran away, and the Vietnam War.There are a lot of other details I’m leaving out because that’s the play and the best way to learn this story is to see it. Still, this play is called Luchadora! for a reason. Essentially this is Lupita’s story, and it’s one of determination, dedication, and heart.

This production does several things well. It tells an essentially timeless coming of age story while also bringing the audience into the world of lucha libre and also the Texas of the 1960s. The characters are well-drawn and the situations are credible and interesting, even though most of the plot is fairly predictable. This is a story aimed to encourage and inspire as well as inform, and it does that well, with strong, memorable performances from an excellent, enthusiastic cast. The key roles here are those of Carmen Garcia and Cruz, as the older and younger versions of Lupita. Both give strong, relatable performances, so much that the audience is drawn to identify with them, and to want to follow this story. These characters, along with Isabel Garcia’s Vanessa, drive the plot and its message–and all three performers play their roles accordingly, with excellent presence, energy, and heart. There’s also impressive support from the entire cast, with strong turns from Lopez as the Mask Maker, who becomes an encouraging mentor to Lupita; from Galvan, sympathetic and caring as Lupita’s father; from Flynn and Skaggs as her supportive friends; and from Overly as the brash, charismatic El Hijo, along with Hannah Pauluhn in an influential role as Leo and Liesl’s older sister, Hannah.

This fascinating story is aided by some excellent technical qualities, as well. David Blake’s two-level set is striking and comprehensive, showing Nana Lupita’s balcony as well as the Texas neighbhorhood of her youth and various other places as needed. The costumes by Carly Parent are also impressive–from the brightly colored luchador costumes to the period-specific attire of the different characters.  There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Michael Sullivan, sound designer Zoe Sullivan, and dynamic fight choreography by Mark Kelley.

Lupita’s world, both in present-day and in 1968, is brought to vivid life in this inpiring, entertaining, and extremely well-cast production. For audience members not particularly familiar with lucha libre, this show serves as a good introduction, as well as communicating important messages about family, friendship, and challenging rigid societal expectations about gender roles, particularly for women and girls. It’s an impressive collaboration between Mustard Seed Theatre and Theatre Nuevo.

Mustard Seed Theatre and Theatre Nuevo are presenting Luchadora! at Fontbonne University until June 17, 2018

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