16th Street Theater probes the power of belief

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By Doug Deuchler

Blogger

Chicago playwright Tanya Saracho's play Enfrascada (A Hoodoo Comedy of Jarring Proportions) has been playing to packed houses at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn for several weeks. It's really a strong, enjoyable production, tightly directed by Keira Fromm and featuring a dynamic ensemble of five actresses.

I appreciate plays that open up some aspect of life or culture previously unfamiliar to me. This fascinating comedy/drama focuses on the world of magic, clairvoyance and faith-based witchcraft within the Latino community. Though on some levels this laughfest is reminiscent of Sex and the City, with hip contemporary women tossing off sassy one-liners, the plot and characters take us beyond the superficial "chick flick" sitcom level for a deep peek into the cottage industry of Latina shamans where we witness the power of believing.

"Enfrascada" is an exciting union of Latino cultural themes with women's themes. After Alicia, portrayed by Dana Cruz, is abruptly dumped by her no-good, live-in boyfriend of nine years, she is totally devastated. When yoga, therapy and meditation don't seem to cure her heartbreak, her friends convince her to try folk magic and seek counsel from Chicago conjure women.

Alicia's friend Yesenia — hip, outspoken, and hot to trot — is played by Yadira Correa. She's aggressive and liberated yet also deeply grounded in her traditions and kinship. This strong-willed young woman makes you laugh out loud but she's wise and deeply insightful, too. "When did we become those women — like our mothers — waiting at the kitchen table?" she asks her friends.

Carolina, a homemaker living comfortably in Wicker Park with what might seem a dream existence, is portrayed by Yunuen Pardo. Her friends assume she's living the "happily ever after" married life they'd yearned for as they were growing up.

Lorena Diaz is amazing, portraying all three of the high-strung "senoras" or Latina conjurers, who are based on some actual Chicago practitioners of occult magic.

"Some fool broke your heart," the first of the over-the-top fortune tellers perceives as soon as Alicia shows up. "Best thing you can do is let him go," she advises. But despondent Alicia hopes to win the dude back.

Diaz is simultaneously funny and scary, providing her different roles with distinctly different dialects and personalities. She is also able to loudly belch at will, a feat till now I thought could only by accomplished by high school boys.

Each of the senoras provides essentially the same prescription for restoring her broken relationship: Alicia must place some items in a jar and seal it up. (Hence the "Jarring" in the subtitle.)

The first of the fortune tellers instructs Alicia to put all her energy into a jar containing honey, sticks of cinnamon, and her boyfriend's name written on a slip of paper. Shaken up frequently, this "honey jar" will "sweeten him back to you," she promises. For good measure, the conjurer throws in her "Bitch, Be Gone" spell to get rid of the "skank" who stole Alicia's man.

Although initially skeptical of the rituals, Alicia becomes increasingly drawn into this world of magic and superstition, even as some of the spells become complicated and pricey. Will she lose her way in her new obsessive pursuit of the underworld of hoodoo and Santeria?

Although Cruz is convincingly intense as Alicia, the woman scorned, her character seems a bit blurry. Maybe I'm too much of a male cynic, but why does this bright, attractive modern female pine for such a big jerk?

Alicia's lovable but nerdy and eccentric "half gringa" cousin who spouts quotes for all occasions and blogs about her juice extractor, is portrayed by Patricia Lowery. She also doubles up, playing a couple of small bit roles.

As the conjuring escalates in intensity, the women find themselves stalking Alicia's former boyfriend and even committing a home invasion to obtain a pair of his dirty underwear for use in a spell. There's even a downright scary, middle-of-the-night cemetery excursion that brings to mind the three witches in Macbeth.

Kurt Sharp's set features blue shelving units chock full of bottles, jars, holy pictures, angels, pottery, and flickering candles. These areas each become the altars of the various senoras.

Enfrascada runs 100 minutes with no intermission. It's a fun, thought-provoking window into a world many of us have never witnessed before. It's also peppered with lots of Chicago allusions.

After Thursday night performances, the quintet of actresses comes back on stage after the curtain to conduct a Q&A session with the audience. I understand an actual Chicago conjure woman, or fortune teller, is coming this Thursday. That should really be interesting.

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