Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The House on Mango Street
The Vortex Theatre
Review by Sheridan Johnson

Also see Dean's review of The Shadow Box and Mark's review of 1984


Alicia Lueras Maldonado and Liana Padilla
Photo by Saint Goddess Photography
The House on Mango Street was first a 1984 novel by Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros, deservedly found on required reading lists in elementary through high schools, and even colleges. It was my favorite book when I was a child and I still quote it today. Part autobiography, part poem, part novel, it is a series of vignettes about cousins, aunts, friends and boys; about cultural and gender divides, home, and leaving and returning.

The National Hispanic Cultural Center, joined with The Vortex Theatre, has chosen Amy Ludwig's stage adaptation of Cisneros' best-selling book to end this year's Siembra, Latino season. Directed by Leigh-Ann Santillanes-Delgado, it's a loving tribute to a timeless modern classic.

The book is told from the perspective of a young girl named Esperanza who longs to move beyond her life on a well-worn street. While the play rarely strays from the exact words of the text (save for cutting some chapters), the way Amy Ludwig allocates the lines allows the production to pounce on one of the more lingering sentiments of the book. In an omitted chapter, Esperanza says, "... what they never tell you is that when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don't ... You feel like you're still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven." With that in mind, it's easy to see men and women of every age dancing across the stage as tias, nuns, children and parents—every person Esperanza passes on Mango Street.

In one of the most touching aspects of the play, Esperanza herself is divided between the younger narrator—the girl more clearly living in the stories being brought to life on stage, played by Liana Padilla—and what some may consider to be the author's voice reliving the stories with her—an older Esperanza, brilliantly played with maternal warmth, compassion, and knowing forgiveness by standout Alicia Lueras Maldonado. That contrast allows for innocence and naivety to mingle with wisdom and nostalgia as easily as Cisneros' own words blend magic with humdrum, and breathing metaphors with simple facts.

The play is, like the book itself, a quilt—several stories sewn together in patches—and, as such, there are some spots that perhaps were put together too quickly. The production favors simplicity to the extent of caricature with several of the stories, turning magic into fairytale. Younger characters are enthusiastically played as constantly swaying and fidgeting, for example, allowing character tics to override actual character in performance. There are easy choices that play possibly toward humor but certainly not toward the depth of honesty available within the text.

That being said, the power of Cisneros' words and Amy Ludwig's adaptation mean that the audience can tap into that depth and that power whenever they want; it simply isn't served to them readily. It also means that the play is perhaps more accessible to children, who I think would delight in the broadness of it.

And there are moments where the breadth of life, the beauty of language and art, and the joy of community sweep up on you, and you cannot help but feel love. There are moments where you really feel the life of Esperanza, and of Mango Street. Special kudos go to sound designer Matt Worely for complementing each scene without ever stealing it.

The cast is a diverse and believable community of actors. Ninette S. Mordaunt in particular shines, bringing genuine joy and life to the myriad characters each member of the team is asked to play.

The House on Mango Street is a celebration and a beautiful song. It is a celebration of Hispanic culture, of self, of life and community. It is a perfect family excursion and a charming revisiting of a meaningful gift of text. It is is a beautiful piece that tells a story each of us should treasure.

The House on Mango Street runs through April 15, 2017, at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2:00. Tickets are available at www.vortexabq.org.


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