Anjou: A Tale of Horror
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
October 9, 2009
Anjou: A Tale of Horror, billed by its producers as a "Mexican pop opera," musicalizes Catherine de Medici's efforts to land her favorite son on the French throne. Catherine (called Catalina here) schemes, connives, poisons, and massacres her way to the top, accompanied by a chorus of singing corpses, evil henchmen, even a cross-dressing cardinal. Think of it as Grand Guignol meets Evita, only bloodier, campier, and with better music.
The Spanish-language show was created for Mexico City's Thomas Jefferson Musical Theater Company, a training ground for young artists. Amazingly, no one in the cast is over 21. Under the direction of Edgardo Lar, they sing and dance like pros. There's not a weak link in the cast. As Queen Catalina, 19-year-old Liesl Lar is a star in the making. Blond hair piled high on her head, make-up applied like a mask, and bejeweled arms flailing, she evoke a demonic, 16th-century version of Eva Peron as she charges through ballads with regal aplomb.
Lar commands every scene she's in, and Anjou's energy flags somewhat when she's gone. Part of the problem is that no one in the cast, despite their immense talent, can match her for sheer power. Charismatic Jym Carlo Heneidi, who plays Catalina's troubled son Enrique, and the lovely soprano Mayte De Samaniego, who plays Margot, come close. As written, their roles simply aren't as defined, or given as good material, as Lar's Catalina.
A bigger part of the problem is the unwieldy book by Guillermo Mendez and Lupita Sandoval. Mendez and Sandoval create a sprawling portrait of the Medici court that not only has to condense history, it has to showcase a 25-member ensemble. In giving everyone a chance to shine, the show achieves breadth, but not always depth. Sometimes, things just get murky. The main throughline of events isn't always clear. Facts don't get lost in translation (there are very reliable surtitles), they get lost in the abundance of ensemble numbers. Some songs, while beautifully written and performed, simply need trimming. The murderous apothecaries, while wonderful, sing for too many stanzas about the effects of poison, wearing out their comic welcome. Enrique's failed reign in the Other Kingdom goes on for too long, despite being portrayed through a beautiful folkloric dance. And the cruelty of the overarching political themes (Catalina's quest for power, her irrational hatred that leads to the massacre of the Protestants) gradually loses momentum amidst sudsy family drama.
No matter. Edgardo Lar's ensemble-centered aesthetic is clearly rooted in the Theater of Cruelty. The opening scene, in which bloodied corpses clad in white writhe back to life, nods to Peter Brooks's Artaudian Marat/Sade, as does the subsequent orgy in Enrique's court. Indeed, the Anjou company isn't afraid of heterosexual sex—there's lots of writhing on the floor with one another—but the show displays a strange timidity surrounding Enrique's growing fascination with his brother-in-law Arturo. And when Enrique appears in fluorescent drag for one brief moment, things get awkward, almost homophobic, in a scene that's weirdly played for comic relief.
Despite its unevenness, Anjou packs an emotional punch. The cast rivals any professional company for skill and commitment. Director Edgardo Lar creates ingenious stage pictures. In one memorable scene, Catalina's casually drops her black cape, engulfing her "enemies," the Protestants, in its grasp. They die smothered in gauze, their features horribly distorted while they are stabbed by Catalina's henchmen. Their massacre is juxtaposed against Margot's wedding's mass in a moment reminiscent of Puccini's Tosca. Of special note, Montserrat Alvarez's costume designs are truly stunning, simultaneously capturing the ostentatious splendor of the Medici court and the horror of Guignol.
In all, Anjou is a breathtaking introduction to the Mexican musical. Here's hoping the Thomas Jefferson Musical Theater Company brings more shows to New York to showcase more prodigious talent.