THEATER: The Odd Couple

Thanks to Cara Mía’s David Lozano and Jeffry Farrell, there’s something happening in Dallas theater that’s not happening anywhere else. PLUS: Sweeney Todd like you’ve never heard it before.

DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: If Farrrell (left) and Lozano can pull this off at Cara Mía, it means something is going on in Dallas theater that isn’t happening anywhere else. Photo by James Bland

The best way to translate a poem seems to me to be … truly putting the poem into motion … .
—Jacques Lecoq, The Moving Body

I have been lost from you Mother Earth.
No longer
does your language of rain wear away my thoughts,
nor your language of fresh morning air
wear away my face,
nor your language of roots and blossoms
wear away my bones.
—Jimmy Santiago Baca, Martín

Are things like this supposed to happen in Dallas theater? This month, Cara Mía Theatre performs a Chicano epic poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca using an “epic chorus” and techniques of movement taught by the late Jacques Lecoq in Paris.

At first glance, it looks like an odd hybrid, like crossing a saguaro cactus with an orchid. But it’s not strange at all, given the men involved. Cara Mía’s artistic director, David Lozano, came back to Dallas from California in the late ’90s inspired by disciples of Lecoq, who founded the International School of Mime and Theater. Nobody else in Dallas knew anything about this master of motion, he thought—but then, serendipitously, Lozano met Jeffry Farrell, who had actually studied with Lecoq in Paris and who was on the verge of leaving Dallas because he could find no one with similar interests.

Lozano has a round face, dark eyes, and the strong, compact, but slightly softened build of a man who grew up as an athlete before he discovered theater. Farrell is thin, with eyes that make him seem like he’s on some kind of attention-focusing drug. To say the man is in shape doesn’t quite get at the quality he projects. Earlier in his life, he spent six months living behind the Cosmic Cup (as it was then) on Oak Lawn, studying yoga with the legendary Kumar Pallana. With piercing, preternaturally blue eyes, and the upright, easy bearing of a yoga master, he’s the kind of man who, without meaning to, makes you feel like room-temperature Brie.

Murder at the Meyerson
Lyric Stage presents a Sondheim classic as it has never been heard.

If you believe the old adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, you haven’t met Sweeney Todd. He’s a barber wrongly sent away to prison for 15 years by a London judge who wants to “have” his wife and steal his beautiful daughter.

Once released, Todd gets his revenge, killing the judge and any other customer foolish enough to take a seat in his barber’s chair. His landlady then turns the victims into meat pies. A gory tale to be sure. But a celebrated Stephen Sondheim classic, too.

“Many people regard Stephen Sondheim as the greatest living musical theater writer and Sweeney Todd as his best work,” says Steven Jones, the founding producer of Irving’s Lyric Stage. Which is one reason why Jones decided it was time for Todd.

That and the fact that in the past 27 years, the show has been produced only twice in Dallas. “But only with five or six musicians,” Jones quickly adds. Why note that detail? Because the Lyric’s production boasts an orchestra of 35 pieces, including an extended string section.

The Lyric’s September 12 production (visit for tickets) at the Meyerson will be what Jones calls “a cross between a concert and a fully produced musical.” Thirty-five actors. Thirty-five orchestra members. No costuming as such. And limited blocking. In other words: it’s all about the music.

“This is a unique opportunity for people in Dallas to hear Sweeney Todd in its full glory,” Jones says. Only trouble is, you may never feel safe getting a haircut again.

“We are risk takers,” Lozano says. “Regardless of the inherent challenges, when one of us has ever felt passionate about an idea, we have always had great success seeing that idea become a production.” They have done The Madness of Antonin Artaud at the MAC and special performances at the Kimbell, the Meadows, and Parkland Hospital, as well as To DIE:GO in Leaves, by Frida Kahlo; Carpa Cara Mía; and Nuestra Pastorella for Cara Mía.

Back in the early spring, they decided on their eighth—a performance of Martín. “After I read Martín, and Jeff told me how he wanted to direct it,” Lozano says, “I knew that it was the right show, by the right author, with the right director. I think that Jeff has quietly established himself as one of the best directors in Dallas. He is certainly the most unique. Who would attempt to create a stage adaptation of a Chicano epic poem with an epic chorus of local Chicano/Latino actors, utilizing techniques used by companies only found in a few cities in the U.S. and Europe?”

Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem is largely autobiographical, about his growing up mestizo in New Mexico, where he had been abandoned by a promiscuous mother and an alcoholic father. The poem recounts his search for his parents, his recovery of a larger, mythical rootedness for himself—including his Apache heritage—and his achievement, at the end of the poem, of something close to what the German poet Hölderlin meant by “poetically man dwells.”

To call Martín an “epic” might be straining the generic definition a little. It’s no Iliad or Aeneid—more a series of lyrics than a narrative. On the other hand, it does have a strong story line linking the lyrics, and its hero has the stubborn resilience and craftiness of Homer’s Odysseus. The poem also shares spiritual affinities with Wordsworth’s autobiographical Prelude, because both are poems about the discovery of poetic powers.

Lozano and Farrell talked to Baca in March, when he did a reading and interview for the Writer’s Studio at Theatre Three. Baca gave his blessing to the endeavor—though, in 1987, when he published his poem, the last thing on his mind, surely, was a theatrical performance in Dallas inspired by a French teacher of mimes, clowns, tragic choruses, and bouffons.

“I think that Jimmy Santiago Baca is the best poet living,” Farrell says. “You can’t look away. He grounds his imagery in the gritty reality of an orphan. He constructs the poem based in classical forms, timeless forms, really. And, thematically, Jimmy resolves in the poem’s central character opposing forces: the Spanish vs. the Apache, the conquerors vs. the conquered, destruction vs. creation, the material world vs. the spiritual world. Powerful, pertinent images, construction, and themes. He says you write the poem, and you find the four or five words that are authentic, from the heart. You keep those four or five words and throw the rest away. Then you write it again, and do the same thing. And again, and again, until it’s all from the heart.”

Unlike schools of acting that emphasize bringing intense personal memories to roles, Lecoq’s technique involves watching other things and people.

“He trained artists in the use of their senses, their bodies, and imaginations,” Farrell says. Lozano underscores the necessity of observation and hints at the gestural truths that will underlie the performance of Martín, if Farrell can bring out what he wants from his actors.

“Jacques Lecoq’s work teaches us to observe the dynamics, rhythms, and processes in our natural world,” Lozano says. “Wind, for example, has its own quality. An exercise for an actor may be that he move like a piece of crumpled paper that is being blown by the wind. Given that the actor is in physical condition to accomplish this properly, he would observe in his imagination the qualities of this piece of paper moving in a particular kind of wind while expressing the movement of this piece of paper as accurately as he can through his body, revealing sudden gusts that push and pull this piece of paper. Observation of what takes place in the world and translating it accurately through the body is a fundamental principle in Jacques Lecoq’s work.”

That’s what makes the prospect of enacting a Chicano epic so tantalizing: it will have to be based on witnessed behavior as emotionally gusted about as that piece of paper (surely one of Baca’s thrown-away drafts), which means that the epic chorus of Martín will reflect back on its own audience.

Take these lines about produce stands from the third section of Baca’s poem, for example. Lozano and Farrell look at them and imagine how a chorus of local actors—sometimes dividing against themselves, sometimes united—would perform them:

Wings of bees wedge board bin cracks
sticky with chile mash, and flies gorge
in tin pails and buzz in paper sacks
dropped on the sawdusted earthen floor.
Alongside the stand, rugged eight wheelers
glazed with potato guck, simmer hot rubber
and grease odors, side-board racks oozing
with crushed fruits.

“It is the director’s art,” Lozano says, “to sculpt each actor’s authentic expressions of this poetry into the choreography of the chorus.”

What will the production look like? Farrell can’t say. But picture these lines from Martín, describing the birth of a son:

a muzzled, deep drum beat
and from bloodnet and bonebed
birthslimed, fleshgusted, slipsurged
brown baby…

What it means if Cara Mía pulls it off is that there’s something going on in Dallas theater that isn’t happening anywhere else: the combination of sophisticated physical theater influenced by Continental thought and a hard-earned, authentic Chicano poetry with ties to the whole epic tradition—as fresh as the latest baby at Parkland, as unpredictable as wind.

2 Pianos 4 Hands. Image courtesy of Dallas Theater Center

Save the Dates

Through September 24
Classical Acting Company takes on the iconic Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. But is the play dated? How will it work in the age of the BlackBerry and the outsourced job? The Art Centre Theatre, 1028 15th Pl., Plano. 214-505-1655.

Through September 24
Remember those first piano lessons? Suppose you were good enough to keep playing, but not quite good enough to be a star—yet? In 2 Pianos 4 Hands, by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, two pianists portray a range of different characters and keyboard styles, from Bach to Billy Joel. Kalita Humphreys Theater @ Dallas Theater Center, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. 214-522-8499.

September 22-October 21
The co-workers of a guy named Tom, who is smitten with “bright and witty” Helen (who does not resemble the one of Troy), try to save him from his own folly in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig. Kitchen Dog Theater’s Jonathan Taylor directs. The MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. 214-953-1055.


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