Muy Very Authentico is Entertaining and Más o Menos Genuine
This summer I was bicycling from St Paul to Minneapolis and I started singing. I often sing on longer trips because I’m used to a car radio when commuting. For whatever reason, I started singing Spanish songs that I used to sing in my youth when I was a mariachi player. I sang “Un Dia La Vez” and “Volver, Volver” and remembered that my grandmother requested I sing them at her funeral. Homesickness crashed over me and I undeniably felt not from Minnesota. I put the story on Facebook and later that day Jon Ferguson messaged me that he wanted to talk about a new project he was developing with his company Theatre Forever, Muy Very Authentico.
I didn’t work on the project for reasons of scheduling and misconnections but I also wanted to remain impartial and write about the show because Jon Ferguson is a well-respected artist within the theatrical community known for his clever staging and bold storytelling. I was very inspired by how Theatre Forever’s last show The Brutes treated war and patriotism via acts of clowning and physical theater. Having also seen Ferguson’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow produced by Waking Shadow, I’ve come to expect transformative theater magic where books become monsters or a horsefly becomes the laser scope of an assassin’s rifle.
I went into Muy Very Authentico with a mixture of high hopes from Ferguson’s previous work and a good dose of caution based on the broken Spanglish title alone. The “very” in the title not only serves as translation for “muy” but is also a sly wink and a nod to the level of authenticity in the show. I was worried about how my culture would be portrayed and I questioned Theatre Forever’s need to tell a story about Mexico since other than Dario Tangelson (who is not credited as working on this project) none of Theatre Forever’s company members are Latino and Ferguson generates ensemble-based work. To remedy this lack of diversity and get some Latinos in the room, Ferguson posted that he was looking for Latinos on Facebook and the theater community tagged all of their Latino friends.
Underneath all of the comedy Muy Very Authentico is about imitation and escape and this starts the moment you walk into the theater.
After the show, Ferguson told me that he relied on these cast members as a sounding board on whether or not moments were offensive. Underneath all of the comedy, Muy Very Authentico is about imitation and escape and this starts the moment you walk into the theater. The box office at Open Eye Theater is usually a plain table in the lobby but Theatre Forever placed a very detailed cardboard replica of a Mexican Chapel over the table and covered the walls with Mexican posters and fiesta flags. Even the concession underwent a Mexican transformation as patrons drank Modelo Negra and Modelo Especial while listening to songs sung by Kalen Keir, Francisco Benavides, and Alex Hathaway. In between songs they casually spoke Spanish and thanked the audience for the applause until Charlotte Calvert joined them. She grabbed a microphone and sang a Portugese song called “Baby” by Gal Costa and that is when my dissonance started. “That’s not Spanish,” I told myself, “That’s not Mexican.”
The play begins with a brief scene set in 1993 as Beverley (Katie Kaufman) and Norman (Brant Miller) prepare for a vacation. They are uptight, mild-mannered, and desperate to connect with each other. Flash forward to the present day where Andres (Jason Rojas) and Tiff (Allison Witham) lament the lack of business for their travel agency “Dream Sueños,” whose slogan is “Where your dreams become sueños,” and for their “Especial Mexico Experience.” The latter, originally priced at $69.99, is being peddled at a 90 percent discount. Enter three distracted youths preoccupied with their cell phones as they use their GPS to find themselves. Tiff asks the trio what each one of them really wants and each kid delivers an absurd monologue. Tiff explains that Kelly (Lauren Rae Anderson) is looking for romance, Brendan (Alex Hathaway) is in search of adventure, Brenda (Charlotte Calvert) is into some “New Age shit,” and these three ingredients equal Mexico!
The kids decide to purchase the Especial Mexico Experience and moments after their credit cards are swiped they are drugged and dragged to a chair by Andres. They wake up believing they slept on the plane but the Mexico they wake up in is created by Tiff and Andres for the tourists and the audience alike by suggestion and stage trickery. Tiff would say, “Feel that ocean air,” as Andres would mist the tourists with a spray bottle. The three are then taken on individual journeys of self-discovery.
Kelly goes to La Playa del Sueños (The beach of dreams) that turns out to be a dating show. Kelly asks each Mexican suitor a nonsensical dating show question and after answering the boys come out in speedos and grind with her. Shortly after she dismisses the dating show for not being “real,” the couple from the first scene Beverly, now called Beberly, and Norman, now called Normando, enter to fix the problem. They create an ocean with waves made of cardboard and bring Kelly a message in a bottle dangling from a string. Kelly reads the note and it is a touching love letter to herself and she realizes she doesn’t need a boyfriend to be happy.
Brendan visits The Jungle of Adventure where he dodges darts, survives snakes, and battles luchadores. He eventually defeats them with a machete-wielding fist protruding from his crotch. Then Beberly and Normando show up and tell him he is already a hero because of his job as a school nurse. Brendan has a ridiculous catharsis after seeing a video of his adorable students and begins to praise the other everyday heroes in our daily lives. He thanks the everyday heroes in the audience and asks the audience to pass around the love by hugging each other.
Then Brenda embarks on a confusing drug induced hallucination filled with flatulence and wall licking after she eats el burrito sueños. Her final epiphanic realization is that she hates herself. After their respective journeys the group finds a can filled with “Ancient Mayan Magic” labeled Cancun and once opened the entire cast enters hedonistic revelry. They take body shots, make out, and sleep together until Andres demands everyone stop. “This isn’t Mexico,” he exclaims of both the show that is being created for the tourists and of the actual Cancun itself. This is the most serious moment of a show filled with irreverence and hilarity. Andres pulls the performative curtain down and provides social critique on how Cancun is a tourist machine fuelled by American consumerism.
My summation of the play will not be able to capture the pure comedic talent of Witham, Hathaway, and Calvert because the play is hilarious (or at least it’s meant to be and probably is for the majority of the audience). I often find myself cast as the Latino Lorax in the majority white spaces of the twin cities, speaking for “my people.” While at times I was upset that Latinidad was being laughed at by a Minnesotan audience as something different or funny, I know that wasn’t the intention of the creators and if anything the obliviousness of the American tourists is being made fun of as well. Beberly and Normando lose themselves in the fabricated Mexico and become caricatures but once the performance is called to end they frankly state that they are happy here in a way they can’t be happy elsewhere.
Muy Very Authentico is a very clever title and Theatre Forever made a smart choice in never taking the characters to Mexico and instead creating a Mexico in the collective imagination of the characters and audience. The show toys with genuineness and fraud simultaneously. As each young traveler traverses a fabricated journey ending in an actual discovered truth, Andres is also asked, “What do you really want?” and in Spanish he replies that he wants to see his homeland in Mexico where the butterfly coated mountains look like they are on fire. Once the illusion is destroyed and the actors creating Mexico leave, the Latino men return to the stage and sing a song in a more dramatic tone than the ones before, and then paper butterflies are coaxed out of Andres’ heart by the cast members which fly over the audience. This bit of visual poetry exists alongside the profane dick and fart jokes because Theatre Forever captures a full range of human expression.