Memo died five years ago. He wants to visit with his living relatives on “the Day of the Dead.” To do so, he must trek through the Underworld, where Mictlantecuhtil, the cruelest of the Aztec gods, will try to stop him.
Oh, another thing about Mictlantecuhtil? He’s got a nice Underworld and aims to keep it that way, see? So he’s even tougher on strangers — which makes Memo’s journey all the harowing, since two fellow angels join him: Marcelus, an African-American from New Orleans; and Kenny, an Anglo from San Diego who died during a Chargers game (reason: “it was a real nail-biter”).
Max Branscomb is one of my favorite local writers. He loves to spin things around, as when Mictlantecuhtil and his faithful jaguar Colmillos become racist Border Patrol agents — aka “La Migra” — determined to keep non-Aztec’s out.
Journey of the Skeletons recalls Teatro Máscara Mágica’s hugely popular La Pastorella Christmas shows: joyous, literate (often bilingual), and up-to-the-minute topical (including a moment of silence for Tony Gwynn, may he soar with angels), and an underlying message.
The tradition of commemorating the dead goes back thousands of years. In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos — the “Day of the Dead” — takes place on November 2. People go to cemeteries, or erect altars in their homes with food and drink and treats. The living want the dead to know they still pray for them and can recall stories — often funny, even bawdy – about their lives.
In Journey, Memo’s wife Fevronia says that memories of loved ones “give power to unlock the spirit inside of us.” Her greatest fear isn’t of dying; it’s that the tradition of communing with the dead — and the natural cycle of living — will be forgotten.
The Teatro Mascara Majica production, which must close this weekend, has all the flair of La Pastorella. Director William Virchis injects vitality into every scene. His actors make bold choices (don’t, and get left out) and obviously relish performing the piece. They don Sandy Scheller’s colorful costumes — the giant, fan-like plumes of feathers on Aztec headdresses are a marvel — and cavort on John Iacovelli’s appealing set to Alejandro Meraz Diaz’s backup band. Tammy Ray’s lighting, from subtle shades to roaring reds, is a major plus.
The three angels — Bryant Hernandez (Memo), Rhys Greene (Marcelus), and Timothy Paul Evans — are a wall-to-wall hoot. As are their adversaries: Joey Molina somehow makes Michlantecutli seriously menacing and comical; and Macedonio Arteaga, Jr.’s Colmillos is a scream, in both senses of the word!
Solid support work comes from Elisa Gonzales, Mariel Higuera, John Lopez, Kent Raphael Gandola, Alyssia Montesdeoca, and Natalee Nordfelt.
Several times a character says in Mexico they treat death not with fear but laughter. Branscomb also quotes Octavio Paz on how other cultures fear death so much they refuse to acknowledge it.
In My Struggle, Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard wonders why: “Add the enormously high body count in fiction [and movies and TV] and it becomes even harder to understand the system that keeps death out of sight.”
Ernest Becker discusses the subject in great detail in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death (1974), as does my mentor, James L. Calderwood, in Shakespeare and the Denial of Death (1987).