The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Comedia y Muerto in The Mission: ‘Death and The Artist’ by BATCO

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“Caballito negro./
¿Dónde llevas tu jinete muerto?”

– Federico García Lorca, “Canción de Jinete, 1860” from Canciones (1927)

I should apologize, dear reader. This review isn’t simply late, it represents a shortcoming on my part.

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An hour can seem like eternity when Death (Benjamin Rafael Garcia) stalks Pobreza (Alfred Muller). Photo courtesy of SFBATCO.

I’m always surprised that anyone reads these reviews, let alone that I have enough regular readers (if not commenters) to warrant my inclusion on the press lists for the likes of the ACT, Berkeley Rep, the Magic, and more. Yet, I’ve always wanted to be an advocate for indie theatre, especially that by, for, and about PoC. (I once interviewed for theatre critic at the SF Chronicle, with “advocating for indie theatre” as my top goal, were I to be hired.) So when the press rep for BATCO reached out to me and invited me to see their latest production, Death and the Artist, I felt bad that seeing other shows, understudying at a major local theatre, freelance writing, and my seemingly-never-ending search for a “real” job (to name but a few obstacles) all kept me from seeing it.

By the time I finally got to see it, the only time left was the final show.

I bring this up because, as both a critic and theatre artist, I know the importance of getting the word out about you work. We don’t all have major sponsors who afford us the luxury of advertising on billboards, buses, train platforms, or even local media outlets. We have to rely on that old go-to, word-of-mouth. And since our work can live or die by how soon – and how good – that word is, I consider it a personal fault to not have my review up the day after I’ve seen a show.

So, having finally seen this one, what did I think?

Death and the Artist (2019) by BATCO - set

Pre-show performance. Set by Bo Golden. Photo by Me.

I can’t think of many shows that open with a Chilean guitarist strumming along as we take our seats, but maybe more should. The sparse set by Bo Golden consisted of a wooden tree with no top, adorned with papel picado. On the stage-left side is the interior of a small shack, with children’s drawings on the wall and a small CRT tv on top of an old plastic crate. Before show started, playwright Carlos Barón was a special Certificate of Honor on behalf of SF Sup. Hilary Ronen for Barón’s many years of uplifting the community.

The story (adapted from the Uruguayan play El Herrero y la Muerte [Death and the Blacksmith] by Mercedes Rein and Jorge Curi) takes place in a San Francisco that had yet to adopt that name. It’s still known as Yerba Buena and is subject to border laws that happen without consulting its native residents. Two such residents are Pobreza, a former “coyote” (escort over the border)- turned-frustrated painter, and his sister Miseria, so named for her often-bleak outlook on life. One day, Pobreza is visited by Our Lord (the kid who died for our sins, not the Father) and St. Peter, who offer the skeptical painter three wishes.

His first wish is that no one who climbs a particular tree will be able to leave the tree until Pobreza says they can. The second is the ability for Pobreza to win at every gamble he takes. The third is for “one extra hour” when Death comes for him. This leads Pobreza on a journey of untold wealth, spiritual contemplation, and the realization that having power doesn’t mean one should use it.

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Miseria (Mercedes White) – it’s her name and her life. Photo courtesy of SFBATCO.

And it’s all done in a very… modern way. Think of Robin Williams in Aladdin, constantly dropping in anachronistic references in the 1850-ish setting. When a bunch of European invaders have the nerve to refer to the dark-skinned natives as “illegal”, the jokes aren’t that difficult to find. And, despite taking place in the 19th century, telenovelas (whose exaggerated style was clearly the influence here) are a running gag. The play isn’t concerned with subtlety, it wants to swing for the fences.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really hit them. The biggest problem with the play was the lack of an intermission. Although the advertising says “90 minutes”, the performance I went two pushed two hours, which seemed a bit relentless with such an over-the-top show (how the actors’ throats survived all the screaming, I’ll never know). Part of that length can be attributed to a script that goes on longer than it should: jokes are repeated; made points are brought up again and again; and the final sequence – relating to Death having to wait an hour – almost felt as it lasted an hour. Barón makes his point very clearly but he somehow feels the need to hammer it into the ground.

Which isn’t to say the entire show is bad. A lot of it would work better if the play were a lot shorter, as befitting its farcical nature. And the cast know how to play farce. Tommy Clifford-Carlos is ensemble’s highlight as the gender-swapped Child of God, showing patience beyond the point of reason. Julio Chavez is another stand-out as the conceited governor prone to wearing “Make Yerba Buena Green Again” hats. And chorus member Isa Musni – a veteran of ODC – is particularly adept at telling a story with the click of her heels.

Also worth mentioning is lighting designer Claudio Silva Restrepo. The Mission Cultural Center didn’t appear to have the most advanced lighting set up, but Restrepo’s rainbow-colored transitions do add to the scene.

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Death makes such lovely music. Photo courtesy of SFBATCO.

It’s on me for not getting to see the show sooner. Still, it seems as if they did well without my review: the show I saw was nearly sold out and the next night the cast attended the TBA Awards, where they were nominated multiple times.

I didn’t enjoy the entirety of Death and the Artist, but – as a theatre artist, born SF native, and PoC – I appreciate its necessity in our theatre community. It was flawed, but not worthless. (Hoo-boy, have I seen worthless lately.) The best I can say is that I hope it leads to more work from this troupe and more reasons for me to visit the Mission Cultural Center.

GRADE:                                                                C+

Death and The Artist ran from the 17th of October – 3rd of November at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco.
For information about the show, please visit the production’s official site here.

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