Teatro Vision takes its audience on a magical adventure in the new production Bless Me, Ultima (based on the novel by Rudolfo Anaya), as its protagonist, the young boy Tony, faces the confusing and often overwhelming journey of growing up in small-town New Mexico in the 1940s. Tony struggles to make sense of his religious heritage, going to catechism every afternoon and helping Ultima—the wise woman and midwife who delivered Tony—to work her herbal and spiritual magic in the evening.
Entwined throughout the conflicting doctrines is the violence that rends the small community, violence that takes the forms of ritual murder in the town and the war that’s pulled both of Tony’s brothers away from home to fight, then pushed them home again forever changed by their experiences.
The brightest light in this show is the beautiful nuanced performance by Lalo Lopez as young Tony. Lopez brings freshness and intensity to a role that would challenge a much older actor. Other standout performances include David Reyes Martinez as family patriarch Prudencio and Anees Guillen as Florence.
Mike Walsh’s minimalist sets bring order to this complex play, while providing a sense of simplicity and poverty. A good choice by director Elisa Marina Alvarado brings the silent but active characters of Death (La Muerte) and the Owl vibrantly to life (in vivid costumes by designer Deborah Rosas). The live musical performance blended almost seamlessly with the recorded pieces, adding to the ambiance of the show.
Bless Me, Ultima falters in several spots, however. The dialogue switches from English to Spanish have neither rhyme nor reason, and the supertitles fail to translate key words, so important parts of the plot are easy to miss for some audience members. The supertitles also fell prey to technical problems on opening night. The first act is front-loaded with dream sequences and tiny scenes of Tony’s early childhood that create confusion and add nothing to the plot. Another problem is the intrusive presence of the narrator, an older Tony who’s typing his life story and telling the audience what’s just happened in the previous scene or what’s about to happen in the next one.
The confusion and heavy exposition lighten up in the second act. Scenes get longer, allowing the actors to generate energy and move the story forward. They also get the chance to play up the show’s humor, including a fall-on-the-ground-rolling funny Nativity show.