SANTA FE, N.M. — Perhaps the most telling indicator of the success of the Fiesta Melodrama last Sunday afternoon was that the pianist got the most applause – and he never said a word.
OK, it might seem churlish to complain about a production put together by a dedicated group of hard-working volunteers.
So let’s start with the high points, including gratitude for the people who have kept this tradition alive for some 95 years.
At least that’s how long Cristina Duarte, artistic director of the Santa Fe Playhouse, says it’s been happening. She said she found evidence of the first melodrama Fiesta performance in 1919.
This year’s production, with its list of many titles (although lacking the extended alliteration that marked past descriptions), had some fresh and unexpected touches.
Stephen Jules Rubin and Richard Parker playing a couple of cynical old coots watching from a theater box – a direct imitation of the commentators in “The Muppets” – elicited chuckles despite some seriously lame jokes.
And a recurring mention of “as confident as a teenager” drew a spotlight to two young women (Isabella Zuniga and Gillian Davis) earnestly reassuring each other with such beliefs as ‘don’t worry, the patchouli will totally cover up the residual odor.’
Those side scenes drew knowing nods from parents – or any former teenager, which pretty much covered the whole audience.
The plot revolved around an effort to bring Zozobra’s head up from Albuquerque to Santa Fe on a glacially slow Rail Runner (almost as slow as the first half of the plot).
The villain, Namaste Ne’erdoowell-Smith (Scott Shuker), wants to keep the head from arriving so that Santa Feans will linger in gloom, perhaps seeking his massage ministrations instead.
Or perhaps being too depressed to vote against his political protégée, Gov. Thoothanna Dinero (Felix Cordova). Or perhaps just allowing him simply to take over the town with his mind-control oil of patchouli and radioactive waste, with a dash of prairie dog saliva.
It wasn’t quite clear. Just as it wasn’t quite clear whether his intent was to stop the train before it got to Santa Fe or to crash it into the Railyard by destroying the brakes – it seems the latter may have followed the lack of success of the former. His stated goal was to hijack the train – and drive it where?
Yes, yes, a melodrama and spoof is supposed to wander into the realm of the ridiculous. But the plot shouldn’t be muddy.
The melodrama did take some well-aimed shots at the kill rate of the Albuquerque Police Department – deprived of guns by the Department of Justice in this portrayal, the officers appeared with an array of substitutes, including a toy ray gun and a rubber chicken.
And ongoing gags about the governor’s policy of not promoting kids who couldn’t read until she ended up with an 80-year-old third-grader (Cliff Russell) and a habit of making dismissive comments about teachers (represented by the hero, Samuel El Jackson, played by Antony Berzack) were on the mark.
A requirement for the engineer, Bertjack Baggypants (Malcolm Morgan), having to blow into an interlock ignition device to start the train highlighted New Mexico’s ongoing DWI problems, while the enthusiastic exercises of his daughter and heroine, Betty Bulletproof-Baggypants (Shawna Howley), effectively spoofed the sometimes fanatical pursuit of fitness.
The actors’ performances are hard to fault. They entered into their characters with spirit and brio. And the villain had one of the best “bwa-ha-has” that has been heard in a long time.
Now, one wouldn’t expect that every single person would get every single joke. But, far too often, it seemed as if a collective “huh?” arose in a cartoon balloon from the puzzled audience.
For instance, why exactly was the Blue Corn Cafe considered a “worst place imaginable” to take the villain? It always seemed pretty inoffensive.
And, while being politically incorrect is to be encouraged, an occasional line strayed into the territory of being offensive, such as the train being so slow that it was “valedictorian at Santa Fe High.”
That’s the kind of crack that makes you want to grab the collective lapels of the anonymous group of writers and tell them to pick on someone their own size.
Speaking of size …
When you introduce a character based on an actual person, such as the governor, into a melodrama, you tread into the area of satire.
As any cartoonist or wit will tell you, satire works best when it picks one or two distinctive traits of a person and exaggerates them.
So, if the governor and her political adviser are to be seen as villains, a portrayal as a pair of card sharps might work.
Or a mobster and his moll. Or a pistol-packin’ cowgirl and her partner.
But showing her as a wifty, empty-headed puppet portrayed by a large man in drag, manipulated by a masseuse/swami/New Age healer, just doesn’t work. The real governor probably would tell him exactly where to stuff his magical feathers – or maybe do it herself.
This characterization left a large hole that made it difficult to anchor the other players.
And you could even say it was sexist, except the play offered other strong females, including an APD officer who triumphed over a beguiling bimbo and the heroine herself, who uncovered the villain’s plot.
But, what the heck, don’t let this discourage you. The melodrama still offers the opportunity to boo, hiss, huzzah and awwww to the action on the stage. You can cheer the hero’s ability to save everyone in the end.
Wait a minute. Samuel El Jackson wasn’t the one who saved the day in this plot.