Bless Me Ultima: On Stage For Big Read

May 8, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Terrance V. Mc Arthur, Theatre

by Terrance Mc Arthur

The Fresno County Public Library has won six straight grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to be part of “The Big Read,” choosing one novel for a month or more and presenting programs related to it. Past choices by the FCPL were To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Joy Luck Club, Fahrenheit 451, and Call of the Wild.

This year, the book is Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. There are activities connected to Ultima that are happening all over Fresno County at library branches and other venues. The California Public Theatre Company is presenting Anaya’s stage adaptation of Bless Me Ultima at the Severance Theater, 1401 Wishon Ave., and it is a mystical blend of magic realism and blood-and-thunder revenge drama, with a coming-of-age story stirred into the mix…and admission is FREE!

As World War II is ending and sons, husbands, and fathers are returning to families, Ultima (Mary Piona) comes to stay with young Tony/Antonio (Daniel Barco) and his family in Guadalupe, New Mexico, in a story told and narrated by the Author (Luis Ramentas), whose tip-tap-tapping of typewriter keys binds the show together during the scene changes with the soft guitar-playing of Dave Palmore. The old woman has an owl that stays near her, and Ultima teaches Tony about herbs and healing. Some people call her a curandera, a healer; Tenorio (Joe Sample), who blames Ultima for all the misfortune that befalls his family, calls her a bruja, a witch.

Tony tries to grow up in a world between the folk religions of curses and golden carps and the Christianity that doesn’t seem to answer his questions about why bad things happen to people. He sees murders and exorcisms, kindness and brutality, as Ultima tries to lead him to find his own truths.

Piona, veteran of oh-so-many local productions, is incandescent as the tiny-but-mighty Ultima, with a gentle weariness as she tries to soften the blows of Tony’s childhood. She can teach of the values of the plants around her, and she can fashion wax effigies to turn evil back upon those who sent it, guarded by her owl (a puppet operated by Jalynne Barnes, who is dressed in an outfit that recalls Wednesday of The Addams Family).

The mystic set of Bless Me, Ultima at the Severance Theatre.

Barco is strong as the little boy seeing all the change and chaos around him, honestly bewildered by the choices he is forced to make.

Ramentas, who has performed with Theatre 3, Epic Ensemble, ART, and the Woodward Shakespeare Company, brings a unifying presence in his narration and typing. His resemblance to Cesar Chavez adds another mental layer to his portrayal. Ramentas tells of Anaya’s problems in beginning his novel, how he “turned around and saw an old woman. She said, ‘You can’t tell this story without me,’”

Sample is a wiry mass of malevolent fury as the vengeful Tenorio, yet earnest and caring as the Priest who teaches the children how their sins will condemn them to Hell. Palmore’s voice is featured in the “Corrido de Billy the Kid,” a song for an outlaw. Costume designer Johnnyangel Pineda appears indelibly as a Dia de los Muertos-inspired image of La Muerta.

S. Eric Day’s direction blends the stage action with hallucinogenic, high-contrast video images of color-washed near-silhouettes. His set design sends intertwined branches arching over the stage into a brooding darkness.

The show is intense, thought-provoking, anger-provoking, and filled with the warmth of families. It is worth seeing, and the price is more than right…it’s FREE!

Performances of Bless Me, Ultima conclude this weekend, Friday and Saturday (May 10-11) at 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 12 at 2 p.m. Admission is FREE. Tickets are not required, but they are available at branches of the Fresno County Public Library. For more information, go to the FCPL website and http://www.fresnolibrarybigread.org/2013/04/film-and-theater.html .

Terrance V. Mc Arthur is a California-born, Valley-raised librarian/entertainer/writer. He lives in Sanger, four blocks from the library, with his wife, his daughter, and a spinster cat.

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