REVIEW: Our Lady of the Underpass (16th Street Theater, with Teatro Vista)

A compelling story, no matter what you see

 

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16th Street Theater (with Teatro Vista) presents
 
Our Lady of the Underpass
 
Written by Tanya Saracho
Directed by Sandra Marquez

at 16th Street Theater, 6420 W. 16th Street, Berwyn
(map)
through May 1 (more info)

By Catey Sullivan

Roughly mid-way through Our Lady of the Underpass, a disgruntled jogger played by Chris Cantelmi goes off on the “retards”  fucking up  his Fullerton Avenue running route as they gather to pray at the titular image.

“These Catholics,” he snarls, adjusting his scrotum through his expensive running gear, “They’re like, ‘Look at my grilled cheese! It’s Jesus! Call a press conference!”

If there’s a more authentic archetype of urban assholery on stage this month, we’d be surprised. With a wad of chewing gum and the ugly air of entitlement peculiar to 20something boys with a full head of hair and a Gold’s Gym physique, Cantalemi captures in full the egoism and the cluelessness of  fellow that’s all too recognizable.

Juan Gabriel Ruiz (photo credit: Art Carillo) He’s but one in the vivid, vibrant parade of characters that people Tanya Saracho’s docudrama centering on the image Obdulia Delgado discovered on the Fullerton Avenue underpass five years ago this month. Directed by Sandra Marquez (who helmed the same cast in last year’s world-premiere of Our Ladyat Victory Gardens), this joint Teatro Vista16th Street production offers an alternately tragic, comic, and provocative examination of faith and skepticism in Chicago.

Saracho spent months, tape-recorder in hand, at the underpass many claimed was a sacred spot after an image of the Virgin Mary (or was it a salt stain?) appeared. As the candles, flowers and petitions accrued, she interviewed the pilgrims who flocked to visit the manifestation of the Virgin Mary -  as well as those who insisted it was a bad patch job.  Our Lady captures the depth and breadth of both the spiritual and the cynical in six, captivating monologues. The disparate (and often desperate) stories are so wholly compelling, it becomes easy to overlook Saracho’s formidable powers as a reporter. At the underpass, complete strangers unburdened  their darkest secrets to her – hopes, hurts and emotions that, in many cases, they had never uttered aloud. If the playwriting thing doesn’t work out for Saracho, she’s surely got a career as an investigative journalist.

In contrast to Cantelmi’s masterstroke as the quintessential tool, Our Lady presents Suzette Mayobre as a Huppie (an upwardly mobile Latina) inexplicably shuddering through a complete breakdown in pink monkey pajamas and Uggs. Her story of a fairy tale relationship (“It was like we were trapped in an ad for a cruise”) that suddenly, literally turns to shit is as hilarious as it is upsetting. If doesn’t matter if you can’t directly relate to the plight of a woman whose perfect boyfriend takes an unforeseen  scatological swerve. Anyone who has ever  been forced to deal with the unthinkable  – and gone a little crazy trying to do so – will recognize themselves in this  moving, tragically funny portrait.

Equally compelling is Gabriel Juan Ruiz as Tony, Elgin resident, aspiring deacon and self-appointed guardian of the Underpass.  Ruiz creates a marvelous trajectory from soft-spoken reason to feral, screaming misogyny  in the space of a single monologue. Women are god’s creatures, Tony rhapsodizes with the gentle, doe-eyed wonder of a lamb -  until (and here, Ruiz captures the distilled essence of bug-eyed mania) they turn into the “beast of the Revelation.”  With Tony’s parting words, Ruiz’ unleashes a neediness that’s downright scary: “I’ve been on television four times!” He yells, and in that frenzied distress, one gets the sense of a desperation that’s almost sociopathic.

underpass1 On the other end of the spectrum is Charin Alvarez, as La Tia, the aunt of a severely disabled boy who is the love of her life. Her story unfolds in the self-effacing tones of a woman who has always put herself a far distant second behind anyone else she might encounter, from immediate family to factory co-workers. Recalling a  transnational Monterrey-to-Chicago love story, the family reunion that upended her life and her abiding devotion to a child not apt to live past one more birthday, Alvarez speaks with a melodious, near-hypnotic tone that is both her artistic signature and the voice of a unique character. It’s a sad, lovely and powerful story.

The one piece in Our Lady that does not work quite so well this time around is the nurse’s tale, the narrative of a Polish-American RN whose bitter recollections of growing up the daughter of a cleaning lady have shaped her angry world outlook. Amanda Powell – the sole newcomer to the cast since it’s premiere last year – leans too hard on the trash-talking vitriol, giving the piece an unvarying rage that doesn’t allow for an emotional arc.

That, however, is largely a quibble –  our sense is that the nurse’s mono-rancor will settle into more varying depths as the run continues.

Between the monologues, Saracho places brief choruses of prayer to Our Lady of the Underpass, of The Botanica that Also Sells Phone Cards, of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, of Affordable Duplexes and all the other causes the Virgin takes on as Fullerton Avenue becomes a shrine. The scenes play out on Brian Sidney Bembridge’s startlingly accurate replication of the underpass and the image on it. Mike Tutaj’s projections of flickering candles, graffiti and shimmering auras instill the piece with both a sense of mysticism and the harsh urban reality of disfigured concrete. No matter what you see as you gaze on the Underpass, Saracho’s story of its power is compelling.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

     

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