El Huracán Arrives at Mildred's Umbrella With Storms External and Internal

Elissa Cuellar and Pamela Garcia Langton in El Huracán at Mildred's Umbrella.
Elissa Cuellar and Pamela Garcia Langton in El Huracán at Mildred's Umbrella. Photo by Gentle Bear Photography

We give thanks to Mildred's Umbrella for our knowledge of playwright Charise Castro Smith.

El Huracán (2018), a generational fable, is the company's third Smith production, following the ironic and wacky The Hunchback of Seville and the weird and horrific Feathers and Teeth. Each play is different in style, construction, theme. Her tastes are eclectic, from Grand Guignol goth to Monty Python inanity to family-inherited mental illness, but all deal with female characters caught between aspiration and outcome. Her latest work is Disney's animated Encanto, set for release at the end of November, with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Of all her Colombian family, only young Mirabel is without magic powers. This is ripe Smith territory.

Huracán is family drama writ large, sometimes too large for all its swirling intersecting plot lines that cover decades. Magic and magic realism form its core, as matriarch Valeria (Pamela Garcia Langton, who positively twinkles), daughter Ximena (Arianna Bermudez), and her daughter Miranda (Elissa Cuellar) live through 1992's devastating Hurricane Andrew. Years later, Miranda's daughter Val (Mayra Monsivais) completes the cycle.

Perfectly detailed through Edgar Guajardo's light and sound design, the destructive power of Andrew mirrors the maelstrom inside the family, for Valeria is fast succumbing to Alzheimer's, and that's affecting all of them. She lives in the past, remembering her former life when she was a Cuban magician who dreamed of making it big in New York. When she immigrated to Miami after Castro's revolution, those dreams died. In one of the play's most poignant and impressive scenes, she incants “How to Survive in Miami” in Spanish while her husband Alonso (Abraham Zapata, calm and confident) translates. It's a shattering passage, stylized by director Patricia Duran and choreographer Frances Duran Martin into a set piece of piercing force. She becomes a maid, wielding her magic act's paper flowers as a feather duster. In this demeaning job, she's invisible to all. Everybody thinks I'm dumb, she intones.

Past and present collide in Valeria's mind, and Langton's sparkling performance pulls the disparate parts of the play together, even when the parts scream clumsy exposition. In another thrilling set piece, she remembers her younger sister Alicia (Monsivais) swimming in the sea. The chirpy Monsivais arrives on a desk chair and blissfully wheels and paddles around the set. The comedy is quickly undercut when we learn that Alicia has drowned in the riptide, while a distracted Valeria is being wooed by Alonso.

The parallels in their lives pile up like the storm's detritus. Valeria wanders into Andrew's maw while Miranda, charged by mom to watch her, is trysting with Fernando (Bryan Kaplún) in her bedroom. But somehow, these unnatural coincidences work because we get to know these characters as they live their lives and wait for the hurricane. They pack clothes, nail up boards, bicker, flirt, reminisce, drink rum and coke, pick at personal scabs, yet they're all held together by Valeria's past and the family's undying bond, no matter how tenuous it seems.

In Smith's great mistake, the play jumps 27 years after Andrew and Valeria's untimely death. Bermudez and Cuellar stand at the footlights while stagehands assist them into and out of fat suits and wigs for the transformation. Why, we ask? It's totally unnecessary, an author's conceit, and throws us out of the drama's dreamlike flow. This is clumsy and lacks imagination.

But the final scene redeems all. Ximena, in the beginning throes of losing her mind, remembers her family at the beach. In a scene out of Fellini, mom in favorite blue tulle dress and dad in his magician assistant's tuxedo sit neatly in chairs with Ximena at their feet. The background is a series of curtains, all different, all swagged like the rococo theater at Drottningholm, all receding into the distance. The sky is a magnificent blue. Sea sounds envelope them. It is the perfect dream image – serene, surreal, fantastical. This is set designer Danielle Aldea Hodgins' masterpiece.

In this odd coda, forgiveness is bestowed, the broken family is made whole, yet mom repeats the cycle. Who will be next to walk into the hurricane? Not the happiest of endings, but it's Smith's abiding message: families weather all storms.

El Huracán continues through November 21 at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at Mildred's Umbrella at The DeLuxe Theatre, 3303 Lyons. Masks required. For more information, call 832-463-0409 or visit Tickets are pay what you can. Minimum price $10.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover