Mala

November 15, 2016

in Performance Art, Plays

Play (2016)
Written and performed by Melinda Lopez

Directed by David Dower

ArtsEmerson
Liebergott Black Box, Paramount Theater
Theater district, Boston

October 27 – November 20, 2016

Melinda Lopez in 'Mala'

Melinda Lopez
in “Mala”
Photo: Paul Marotta
Courtesy of ArtsEmerson

A collage-like one-woman play inspired by the deaths of the playwright-actor’s parents.

With clear indications that this is autobiographical drama, Melinda Lopez takes on the daring prospect of dealing with the fairly recent deaths of her parents. The story of Lopez’ mother assumes particular significance as the inspiration for the drama which incorporates, as well, tales told via other personas about the lives and deaths of their parents.

Acknowledging that theatrical walls all but disappear in this moving drama, Lopez at once creates an autobiographical tale and a distillation of it that rises out of the personal story and becomes a rough, edgy and daring play in its own right. Though it feels somewhat like a work in progress, it bears the mark of a drama well on its way to fruition, and one does well to listen carefully for its subtle heartbeat to get a sense of how that more durable drama manifests itself.

Beginning with a riff on the issue of turning off one’s cell phone before the performance, Lopez’ character initiates the removal of provisional boundaries between theater and life. Later references to local scenery (rush hour traffic on Fresh Pond Parkway in Cambridge), paint a picture of daily routine that further erases the distinct theatrical construct.

With such improvisations on her actual routine, Lopez’ character emerges with a vividly familiar form, which, through concurrent theatrical distillations, renders a character with her own distinctive narrative focus.

What that focus is and how it draws its dramatic energy from the collage of tales is the real issue of the play. How Lopez, through dealing with this highly personal and painful subject-matter, hones that focus.

At one crucial point in the play, Lopez’ character tells the audience what Mala actually means – a person who is fundamentally, not coincidentally, bad, bad to the core, unredeemable, malevolent. This is, in a rage, what Lopez’ character’s mother calls her at a point of conflict. That attibution becomes the centrally significant gesture of the piece and represents the tragedy at its core.

Lopez’ character, like any dutiful daughter, does the best she can to keep her parents alive. But what appears to draw the ire of her mother is the mother’s insistence and determination to grapple with death. It is precisely the refusal of the daughter to acknowledge that need which causes the dying mother to characterize her daughter as fundamentally bad.

The narrative mosaic of the play hovers around this essential conflict in an interesting and suggestive way, but does not always use all means possible to evoke this tragic focus. When one does get a sense of this focus – between a mother who is trying to learn to die and a daughter who devotedly tries to keep her alive – the potency of the distilled drama becomes most vividly obvious.

Given that Lopez’ parents died within the last few years, it is clear that she is personally grappling with immediacies of loss while working artistically to shape the amalgam of related feelings into a work that is at once honest and potent.

This is raw theater – not completely formed, but a vividly honest and courageous attempt to deal with what is close at hand, awful, personal and significant – in hopes of producing a theatrically iconic tragedy about parents and children who are both closely allied and pitted against each other in the face of death.

– BADMan

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