Review: St. Ed’s Luchadora!

Let's get ready to stumble in this Lucha Libre drama

(l-r) Tonie Knight as Nana Lupita and Sonia Mariah Fonseca as Vanessa in St. Edward’s University’s Luchadora! (Photo by April Paine)

When a well-worn lucha libre mask is found in an old briefcase, an inspiring personal journey that touches on cultural identity, family traditions, and female empowerment is set in motion in Alvaro Saar Rios’ delightful Luchadora!

And by motion, we’re talking high-flying aerial techniques, bone-rattling piledrivers, and thunderous brain-busters since this piece of fairytale storytelling is grounded in the colorful, Spandex-clad world of Mexican freestyle professional wrestling.

First staged in 2015, the play is now being performed by St. Edward’s University’s professional-track acting majors. Its story travels back and forth between modern day Milwaukee, Wisconsin – where Nana Lupita (guest artist Tonie Knight) reveals the family’s past involvement in lucha libre to her teenage granddaughter Vanessa (Sonia Mariah Fonseca) – and the small Texas town of Santa Teresa in 1968 – where the younger version of Lupita (Mia Ramirez) first unmasks the family secret. She then defends her family’s honor by defying the traditional roles of women and wearing the mask of her injured father (guest artist Victor Santos) into the ring to fight El Hijo (Marcelo Rivera), the world champion son of her father’s longtime nemesis.

Because the script is imbued with magical realism – a playful style of expression blurring the lines between fantasy and reality – Nana Lupita and her granddaughter are able to be present and provide commentary as their family’s past unfolds. It also allows college-age actors (Claire Lane and Emile Sivero) to play young Lupita’s childhood friends, and encourages director Khristián Méndez Aguirre to make whimsical choices in his staging, such as having those children riding imaginary bikes and bouncing in unison while traveling in an imaginary truck.

Unfortunately, many of Aguirre’s creative choices and those of scenic designer Tenzing Ortega stumble rather than astound. Set pieces meant to represent various locations – young Lupita’s family flower stand, the mask maker’s shop, for example – lack imagination in their conception and elegance in their construction. Even the wrestling ring – the epicenter of much of the play’s action – is a makeshift creation consisting of two large mats and imaginary ropes that characters pretend to climb through when entering the ring and lean on when in it. They don’t share the same aesthetic as the gorgeous hand-painted mosaic design that covers the theatre floor for this production.

Aguirre’s direction also results in a plodding pace. Dead air repeatedly fills the in-the-round performance space as unwarranted pauses between actors’ lines (Ali Matos, as the mystical Mask Maker, is responsible for more than her share) go unchecked, onstage actors are left with nothing to do while one of them leaves and returns with a prop, and the desired call-and-response between audience-baiting wrestlers and spectators go largely unfulfilled. And the play is put on hold when the wrestling ring is assembled for a short bout and, again, when it’s disassembled. The wrestling bouts, choreographed by Roén R. Salinas, are also underwhelming affairs. Though the fairytale nature of the play allows for the wrestling moves to be stylized approximations of the real thing – and Luis Ordaz Gutiérrez and Guicha Gutiérrez do wonderful work providing costuming for the wrestlers (Ariel Blanco, Tyler Donovan, and Christian Meaux) – the aforementioned aerial attacks, piledrivers, and brain-busters are sadly reduced to mere slaps and kicks that never come close to their mark.

It’s really the play itself and the players that make Luchadora! worth seeing. Guest artists Knight and Santos set a high bar when it comes to finding the charm and authenticity in their characters, and most of the cast – particularly Fonseca as young Vanessa and Ramirez as Lupita – follows suit. When they capture the playwright’s playful and often poignant intentions in their performances, the show absolutely soars despite the staging’s shortcomings.

St. Edward’s University’s Luchadora!

Mary Moody Northen Theatre, 3001 S. Congress
Through April 23
Running time: 1 hr., 50 mins.

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Luchadora!, St. Edwards, Mary Moody Northern Theatre, Tonie Knight, Sonia Mariah Fonseca

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