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.