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When El Cucui Walks

Jorge Tapia

With:
Papi-Tres ... Richard Talavera Brian ... Liam Vincent Camila ...Lisa Cortez Walden Snake ... Ruben Castro Ilizaiturri Owl ... Lidia Doniz El Cucui ... Melvin Butel Musicians ... Fernando Torres,

Jorge Tapia

Bay Area playwright Roy Conboy’s new “When El Cucui Walks” is a sometimes muddy but emotionally persuasive voyage into magical-realist terrain. While the rules of its real-vs.-dream-world game could stand future editorial clarifying, the script has considerable appeal as it juggles fantasy, romance, humor and social comment.

A barrio house somewhere “in the West” is home for young Camila (Lisa Cortez Walden) and her invalid great-grandfather Papi-Tres (Richard Talavera). She’s accepted the burden — somewhat reluctantly and without additional family help — of keeping this beloved ancestor from a nursing-home fate. But Papi-Tres doesn’t make things easy. He’s constantly making her late for work, making her retell the stories he told her as a child. Between their shared loneliness and Camila’s low-wage job stress, the relationship is beginning to wear.

Enter Brian (Liam Vincent), a young Caucasian male seemingly summoned up by Papi-Tres. He too wants to hear those folkloric tales, but soon reveals another, love-struck agenda.

The action blurs between fairly bleak if humorous everyday experience and Papi-Tres stories — the latter dominated by companion and nemesis El Cucui (Melvin Butel), a wolfish trickster whose powers are as great as his motivations are untrustworthy.

Conboy doesn’t incorporate this mystical element very coherently. We’re often unsure whether Papi-Tres or El Cucui is in control, or what impact the latter’s dream world (glimpsed behind a scrim, with two other “animal spirits” mimed in Raquel Haro’s choreography) has on the young romantic pair. In the end, it appears Papi-Tres has made a sort of Faustian deal to ensure his great-grandchild’s happiness, but this tension should be more clearly foreshadowed throughout.

Despite such confusion, “When El Cucui Walks” offers considerable pleasure. Characters are drawn simply yet with satisfying relish; only Camila’s railings about sexual harassment on the job and her shrunken opportunities hit too blunt a note. The mix of fantasy, earthy wit and sensuality reaches a delightful crescendo just before intermission: As Camila and Brian surrender to mutual attraction, the spirits and Papi-Tres urge them on with a giddy, Dionysian dance.

Roberto Gutierrez Varea’s Esperanza production realizes Conboy’s ambitious canvas with low-budget dexterity, from Jerry Reynolds’ evocative set to the live musical accompaniment. Talavera’s wry Papi-Tres and Cortez Walden’s more sourly amusing Camila are notable in a generally strong cast.

When El Cucui Walks

Production: A Teatro de la Esperanza presentation, in partnership with Teatro Mision, of a play in two acts by Roy Conboy. Directed by Roberto Gutierrez Varea.

Crew: Set, Jerry Reynolds; choreography, Raquel Haro; lighting, William Langfield III; costumes, Chrystene R. Ells; stage manager, Mara Faye Lethem. Artistic directors , Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Ruben Castro Ilizaiturri. Opened, reviewed Feb. 19, 1994 , at Teatro Mision (through March 13). 142 seats; $ 8 top.

With: Papi-Tres ... Richard Talavera Brian ... Liam Vincent Camila ...Lisa Cortez Walden Snake ... Ruben Castro Ilizaiturri Owl ... Lidia Doniz El Cucui ... Melvin Butel Musicians ... Fernando Torres,

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