Theater review: ‘Harvest Moon’ at Madera Theatre Project brings the fields to the stage
Madera Theatre Project’s “Harvest Moon” is the second production of the company’s inaugural season. The subject matter is a good indication the company is intent on offering a variety of titles and styles of shows. In other words: Summer community theater doesn’t just have to be about big, family-friendly musicals.
Alas, from the size of the audience at the Friday performance I attended of “Harvest Moon,” it’s harder to get people out to see a poignant, meditative example of Chicano magical realism than a battalion of dancing forks and knives in “Beauty and the Beast.” I hope more people can get to the second and final weekend of the show. Here’s a rundown:
The play: Jose Cruz Gonzales won the Seattle-based theater company The Group’s 1991 Multicultural Playwrights Festival, and it was given further development by the company’s Playwrights’ Lab.
The performances: The production continues 7 p.m. Friday, July 14, and Saturday, July 15, at the Matilda Torres High School performing arts center, Madera.
The story: A drama, “Harvest Moon” is an “ancestral agricultural memory” told through the eyes of Mariluz (Gaby Prado), a mother whose presence (using the word ghost sounds too corny) visits her son, Cuauhtemoc (Thomas Estrada Jr.) to immerse him in her family’s history as farmworkers. She died far too young. Told in a series of flashbacks and memories that loosely follow a chronological through line, the play introduces Cuauhtemoc to people he never knew, all the way back to his great-grandparents.
Related story: THEATER PREVIEW: 4 GENERATIONS OF FARMWORKERS COME TO LIFE IN MADERA THEATRE PROJECT’S ‘HARVEST MOON’
The writing: With a dose of magical realism and a focus on issues of Latino significance (including the tussle between Mexican and American identity), the play is a thoughtful cultural experience. Some of the tropes it uses seem a little obvious – the philandering husband, the allusions to Day of the Dead, the Aztec warrior, the union activism – and predictable. It is not as strong as other plays I’ve seen written in a similar magical-realism style, which is likely why it doesn’t seem to have been performed much in the past 20 years, at least on a professional level. The flashbacks can be confusing and some of the characters are underwritten. There’s always a danger that when you’re asking your audience to process complicated timelines, family relationships and historical events, there isn’t enough bandwidth to allow the material to resonate. An emotional arc does finally emerge, but it takes a while.
The mural: The mother is an artist, and she’s obsessed in life with finishing a mural (credited to Kaitlin Kerby) depicting the generations of her family. I love the way the mural is the centerpiece of the set. It serves as a way for the various “ghosts” to make entrances and exits by way of swiftly opening doors (a nice bit of stage magic). Scenic designer Antonio Olivera III’s clever contraption reminds me of a supernatural elevator.
The acting: Several sterling performances anchor the show. Carlos Sanchez, one of Fresno State’s strongest recent theater graduates, is superb as Ruben, the father of Mariluz, whose transgressions and untimely end greatly impact his family. Cecilia Cantu, who portrays his wife, Gloria, is another standout.
The direction: Elena Navarrette’s work is well-paced and distinctively staged, and she’s mostly successful in navigating the ambitious chronological jumps. I like how she is able to offer small, fecund touches to the stage that capture the richness of the earth: real dirt in a planter; stylized orange and lemon trees, a sense of hard work and upward struggle. I think some of the moments are underplayed in terms of vibrancy and impact, such as the son’s periodic encounters with the Aztec warrior (also played by Sanchez). And there are small stumbles that can make big differences: In the last moments of the performance I attended, the final closing of a door needed to be crisper and more meaningful. Slam – the end of the story. Instead, various cast members shuffled down stairs in full view after what should have been a full black-out, robbing the moment of its conclusive impact. Overall, however, the direction helps tie together a sometimes unwieldy play and does so with grace and style.
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The tech credits: Elizabeth Herling’s lighting design is an improvement on the company’s opening production. Adam Lee’s sound design lets us hear the performers clearly, though some added sound (such as voices of the ancestors early in the show) was muddled.
The takeaway: The most important thing about “Harvest Moon” is the connection to community. There’s a palpable sense of place on the Madera stage, which gives this play an added zip. Navarrette told me some members of the production are splitting time between working in the fields and performances. The idea of art imitating life is a powerful one, indeed.
“Art in Fresno doesn’t sell” – Ginger K Lewis-Reed, 1997.
She wasn’t wrong.