Generic Ensemble Company's Carmen
This devised work shares the name of Bizet's opera, but it has its own story to tell, one that's modern, irreverent and funny
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., May 25, 2018
"I do what I want. I speak for myself. I live my own life."
The defiance and brazenness in her words and the way she says them, plus the smoldering look that adds to their fire, may strike you as familiar, may recall a certain free spirit tantalizing men outside a cigarette factory in Seville. But just because the woman here shares the name of the seductive "gypsy girl" in the famous opera and teases you with a snippet of Bizet at the outset of Generic Ensemble Company's production, don't assume you know this Carmen. She won't be following a script someone else penned. She may tempt you. She may save you. She may slap the shit out of you. See, this Carmen doesn't play by anybody's rules but her own.
And the same's true of GenEnCo's Carmen. As devised by the cast and director kt shorb, this play wanders freely from its source. Forget Spain. Forget gypsies. Forget arias. This Carmen does what it wants. It speaks for itself. It lives its own life. And that life is happening now, in an El Paso gay bar, with its rainbow version of the Mexican flag and "Chinga la Migra" banner on the wall, silvery fringe curtain in the doorway, and colored Christmas lights that extend over the audience so we're included among the customers. It's where Carmen Julieta Rivera-Melendez struts in her hoop earrings, crop top, and American flag cutoffs – one cheek stars, the other stripes – where two undercover ICE agents come prowling for someone who's supplying papers to undocumented workers, and where one of them falls under Carmen's spell. The fire kindled between them burns like the one between the opera's Carmen and Don José, but just when the play looks to be barreling toward tragic melodrama, it swerves, serving up one-liners or gags or exaggerated reactions straight from a telenovela: popped eyes and dropped jaws in a hot spot, with a "duh-duh-DUH" sound effect. This Carmen has as much to say with a joke as with erotic tension. It's where an extended drag show opens with a forlorn Virgen de Guadalupe eating Takis as Pavarotti sings "Ave Maria," where a piñata resembling a certain Wall-Builder-in-Chief gets ripped a new one – and an impromptu proctological exam. It's rude. It's irreverent. And it's really funny.
The performers clearly know where this Carmen lives, and their familiarity with all the aspects of this world – border culture, queer culture, Latinx culture, and, not least, American culture under Trump – allows the play's comedy and drama to arise naturally from them, even when the tone shifts radically. Everyone onstage belongs to this world, and they've all shaped it together, so it holds together as a true ensemble show. That said, some cast members make a special impression. Eva McQuade's ICE agent Lucia, partner to the besotted Gerardo (Saray Rosales, suitably moonstruck), makes hilariously comic Jekyll/Hyde transformations from her overly sweet and cheery undercover persona to the raging, F-bomb-dropping cop. As the bar manager Menny, Jesus I. Valles (who's in just the first four performances of the run) glitters as brightly as his sequined jacket, tossing off comic lines with casual charm, as if he hardly knows they're funny. (He does. They are.) Then there's Cassandra Reveles as Carmen. Once we've seen her ogled by men and women alike, her character explains that "it's all in your energy. The world is a stage. They're watching. The trick is to keep them watching." It's a trick Reveles has mastered. Her every move is infused with a confidence in her own allure. Since her Carmen believes she is desirable, we believe it. Not that she's a slave to her own attraction. She is her own woman, independent, free – and able to tell her own story, not some other character's.
Again, the same's true of GenEnCo's work. Near the end of this play, things go south, and a character says, "This is not the story we want to tell." And the characters are empowered to change the story. Thinking about when the play is set and where and what we're going through today, this is not the Carmen we know, but it may be the Carmen we need.
CarmenDougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd., www.genenco.org
Through June 2
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.