Review: Glass Half Full Theatre's Yamel Cucuy

Modern-day Mexican folktale rallies against things that go bump in the night

Gricelda Silva in the title role of Glass Half Full Theatre's Yamel Cucuy (Photo by Chris Owen)

Glass Half Full Theatre has earned the reputation for creating intriguing bilingual (Spanish/English) devised works, featuring a blend of shadow puppetry, three-dimensional rod and wearable puppets, and talented human performers, that highlight themes of social and environmental justice. And, like most of its productions, Caroline Reck, Indigo Rael, and Gricelda Silva's engaging Yamel Cucuy employs a prevailing and transportive magical realism, as well as a boundless imagination in its storytelling.

This one-act play about things that go bump in the night has been slow-cooking for four years and was placed on the back burner during the height of the pandemic. It is finally receiving its world premiere in the Ground Floor Theatre performance space, just in time for Halloween and Día de los Muertos.

The work is rooted in the twofold cultural fear that lies just below the surface of borderland society, a fear that follows 13-year-old Yamel (Silva), an undocumented immigrant in hiding, as she navigates a treacherous emotional and sociopolitical landscape. She is afraid of being discovered and deported by the immigration agents that hunt her and her brother (Gustavo Martinez). But she is also fearful of being captured by the terrifying spirit characters that fill the Mexican folklore of her childhood, intended to frighten youngsters so they won't misbehave or put themselves in harm's way.

The specters who haunt Yamel are El Viejo (Tane Ward in chilling, larger-than-life costuming designed by Annie Ulrich), who carries a sack full of children he has stolen and wants to add Yamel to his collection; the vengeful Las Lloronas (a masked Lori Navarrete), whose many faces seek to claim Yamel in exchange for the children she drowned; and La Lechuza (puppeteers Marina DeYoe-Pedraza and Connor Hopkins), a witch in owl form, who is drawn to the power of young Yamel's onset of adulthood. An unexpected development in Yamel's lifeline offers her perspective and an opportunity to write her own modern folktale that conquers the boogeymen under the bed, the spirits in the closet, and the ICE agents at the door.

Yamel's spiritual journey between the borders of Mexico and the United States and, later, between life and death, with the mythical beast El Chupacabrón (Martinez) as her travel guide, is facilitated by Rachel Atkinson's dramatic lighting design and a backdrop of projected imagery and shadow puppetry. A prerecorded soundtrack of original music by Paul Piñon draws its inspiration from Indigenous percussion, folkloric guitar, and synthesizer-based horror movie scoring by the likes of John Carpenter (Halloween), Claudio Simonetti (Suspiria), and Philip Glass (Candyman), and adds layers to the production's ambience. There're some impressive jump scares to boot, courtesy of apartment furnishings and appliances that are so much more than what they appear to be.

All this is well-orchestrated by director Caroline Reck and K. Eliot Haynes, who is responsible for sound design and video integration. On opening night, there were times when the production tilted toward the wonky due to the complicated logistics of its staging, which tended to slow down the tempo and occasionally reveal the method behind some of the creative madness. But this was not nearly enough to undermine all that is extraordinary about this dark and delightful piece of storytelling or the recommendation that readers venture to see it.

Glass Half Full Theatre's Yamel Cucuy

Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale

Through Nov. 5
Running time: 80 mins.

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Glass Half Full Theatre, Yamel Cucuy, Ground Floor Theatre, Caroline Reck, Indigo Rael, Gricelda Silva, K. Eliot Haynes, Paul Piñon, Marina DeYoe-Pedraza, Tane Ward, Annie Ulrich, Lori Navarrete, Gustavo Martinez, Connor Hopkins

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