Regional Reviews: Chicago
The production's successes begin with the wonderfully crafted visuals. Anna Louizos backs the full-sized ring with a gold, stepped pyramid that is just gaudy enough to play with the "low art" flavor commonly associated with wrestling without at all accepting that premise. Double doors set in the center of the base, of course, facilitate dramatic entrances by the luchadores, and the flat itself serves unexpectedly well as a backdrop that showcases both the saturated rainbow lighting design (Jason Lynch) and the arresting projections by Michael Salvatore Commendatore and Rasean Davonte Johnson.
The projections combine with Michael Huey's sound and original music to imbue the story with the mythic quality that is, at once, over-the-top and ultimately moving. And, of course, the matches would be nothing without the flamboyant, functional costume design by Nicole Alvarez. From the capes to the headdresses, to the masks and base-layer costumes themselves, Alvarez's sense of individual character and visually appealing combinations is top notch.
The story is cleverly designed and well paced. Each of the matches is breathtaking on its own athletic and artistic merits (kudos to wrestling coordinator Luis "Aski" Palomino, who also plays Tezca). Moreover, each match, beginning with the humiliating loss of the young técnico upstart Huitzi (Joey Ibanez) to the retiring rudo Tezca, which nearly results in Huitzi losing the mask handed down through his family for three generations, has stakes that the audience gladly gets swept up in.
This vibe begins well before entering the Owen Theatre itself, as guests are invited to grab brightly colored posterboard and markers to make signs supporting their favorite luchador or simply expressing their love for the sport. Pre-show, the Maestro de Cermonia (Victor Maraña) and the Referee (Jean Claudio) whip up the crowd and offer basic guidance on when to boo and hiss, when to cheer, and when to settle to let the genuine drama unfold. In all of this, they have an assist from two camera operators (Isabella Abel-Suarez and Cisco Lopez), whose footage is projected at the apex of the pyramid, both pre-show and during the matches.
Although this is all delightfully fun, it's perhaps more impressive and a testament to how smartly designed the show is that it almost seems unnecessary. The story and characters win the audience over so easily and keep them so engaged that the Comentaristas (Ramón Camín and Rinska Carrasco, who spark wonderfully off one another) are able to shade more and more into exclusively Spanish dialogue and little or nothing is lost.
Among the luchadores, Coyo (Paloma "Starr" Vargas, a legitimate Chicago pro-wrestler) rules the ring with her tremendous presence, the conviction of her moves, and her command of the mic. She and Ibanez match well with one another as reluctant allies, an awkward tag team, and ultimate enemies, with Ibanez doing well to sell both Huitzi's young punk phase and his eventual growth.
Although the audience primary sees Quetza (Molly Hernández) in video clips where her voice is modulated, her dead-eyed stare is arresting, and her match with Coyo is among the most engaging.
LUCHA TEOTL runs through October 29, 2023, at the Goodman Theatre, Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit GoodmanTheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.