DISCLAIMER: I am on the Advisory Board for Cohesion Theater Company. I am writing the review for the show, but can state emphatically that I knew almost nothing about it prior to attending opening night. I even got a shout out in the program because I participated in construction, but Brad Norris can attest, I take directions well but had no idea what the finished product would look like. P.S. It exceeded by imagination and expectations.
The prevalence of the “weeping woman” in fairy tales and myths is the center piece of this play. La Llorona is so many things, the stories vary from culture to culture except for one essential truth- she killed her children to hurt her husband. She then laments her choice and is seen weeping and searching. It is told as a cautionary tale to children, “don’t go out at night or La Llorona might snatch you!”
The play at Cohesion is a Baltimore premiere of this modern twist on the classic tale. In this story three high school girls have chosen the legend of La Llorona as a project. As they research her tale and stories, she appears to them but isn’t the essence of what she seems. She changes her emotions, stories, and paths with frequency and is barred from entering heaven due to her sin. As the girls move further and further into their project, they become more and more entwined personally in the story and the feminist roots that tie us all together.
First and foremost, let’s talk about the creepy as shit ghost, played expertly by Mani Yangilmau. Her audible breath as she slinks behind the chairs, her weeping, writhing on the floor, and begging for her life are all facets of a disjointed woman. But she combines them to make a dynamic character that isn’t schizophrenic, just a woman at wit’s end who is grasping at straws for redemption. Her mask, hair, and bloody gown (costumes by Elizabeth Ung) add to her unraveled personality.
Emily Sucher plays one of the three high school girls, Rachel. Her story is that of the misfit. She is new, Jewish, and richer than her counterparts. She is struggling with her identity and her overbearing flippant mother, played by Laura Malkus. She plays the role with general anxiety in every fiber. She nervously paces, reacts when taunted, but in the end has a good heart. My favorite part of her story was when she confronts Rachel, her namesake from the old testament, to ask for guidance. Their intimate discussion speaks not only about cultural awareness, but about trying to fit the square peg in the round hole.
Mia Ybarra plays Molly, a Native American girl who has trouble walking the line between being assimilated, and being true to her ancestors. It doesn’t help that her name is taken from an American Girl Doll. Her first monologue was confusing to me, I understood the mirror and most of the speech, but she didn’t look like she has any stretch marks- and her problems, compared to the other two high school girls, seemed slightly trivialized. Her portrayal of the angry girl who doesn’t know the path to take is embraced through her speech and mannerisms, especially her use of “fuck” and middle fingers. Her angst is palatable.
Maria is played by Natanya Washer. Her fluent Spanish and fluctuating degrees of accent seal her performance as the center of the clique of girls. Although she is the smartest and alpha for the troupe, she too gets bogged down in rash decisions. Her story mirrors La Llorona’s, but for a modern teenage girl. She is so desperate for affection and attention it becomes the centerpiece of her story, and her interactions with castmate Sucher (Rachel). Sucher is listed as the Intimacy Choreographer, which I never have experienced before, but I assume means she worked carefully on these scenes and it shows. As Maria faces the pinnacle of her ordeal in the arms of La Llorona, her weeping transcends the worldly and ushers in the myth and folklore of women everywhere.
Laura Malkus plays an expert mother with issues. Her doubling as the mother image throughout the play helps reinforce the maternal motif. The four gatekeepers, Jonathon Jacobs, Chara Bauer, Mika J. Nakano, and Christian Gonzalez portray various characters as needed throughout the production. From mirror holders, to television commercials, they flow in and out of the playing space like ghosts. The job of gatekeeper becomes more extensive than just denying La Llorona entrance when they manipulate puppets and screen imagery behind the tarp. They also shift from phantoms to palpable characters when hissing and screaming at La Llorona.
The play itself is hauntingly beautiful. From the mural in the center of the floor, painted by Jess Raspp, to the blue gates of heaven it feels like you’ve been taken out of Baltimore. The sound design by Meghan Stanton of eerie noises and windy whispers also define the creepy tone. The night I attended there was an assistant stage manager too, played by the adorable Fado. Scenic Designer Jess Rassp and Scenic Artist Allison Bloechl did an outstanding job with tone, mood, and décor.
I did truly enjoy my experience, but there were some minor things that are worth mentioning. One is the length. The running time is two hours and twenty minutes. I realize there were some “dead space” areas where the tone is underscored with sounds and silence. But that was a long evening and I felt like some of the air could have been taken out of it to condense slightly. The only other thing is that the themes are so relevant and so grounded in the feminist movement, I felt sometimes like the characters took it a step farther than I was prepared for. Occasionally the play seemed too lofty for me to connect to properly. It would switch and come back down to earth, thankfully. But there were a few moments where I struggled to follow where we were headed.
I think all in all the play contains poignant messages about the struggles faced by women. There is some discussion of fertility, menstruation, and of course, infanticide that might not be suitable for younger audience members. The “feminist as fuck” or “heck” storyline though does make it a martyrdom for women of all nationalities, sexual orientations, and other factors that separate us instead of unifying. The universal message is one of struggling as a female, and conquering your own demons in the end, and that, I can totally get behind.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? La Llorona is a folktale brought fluidly to life. I suggest you go with some empowered women and plan time to discuss afterwards. This is the first offering of the rep sequence, so I am excited to see what happens next week with Orphan Sea. P. S. Brad Norris is so proud of his dual-natured program that offers one sheet for two shows. The reciprocal for the rep is impressive, so keep gloating about it at the door 🙂 The show is supernaturally spine-tingling and will give you goosebumps both from fear and enlightenment. (I)
Running in Rep with “Orphan Sea” through April 15th. Check website for specific show before arriving. Running time two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission.