In his native New York City, award-winning performer and playwright Mark-Eugene Garcia is known for his vast body of work on the stage as well as in films. Garcia’s performance resume runs the gamut from drama to comedy to horror. As a seasoned actor, Garcia undoubtedly knows the importance of a meaningful story to create a rewarding experience for the audience, either on the screen or live on stage. Indeed, the power of storytelling is the focus of his provocative Eight Tales of Pedro: specifically, telling stories of HOPE that family and friends can share. As one of the characters states early on in the play, “All in favor of the stories of hope, raise your hands!” Directed by Rodrigo Ernesto Bolanos and now playing at Queens Theatre, Garcia’s intensely entertaining play gives a vivid look inside a piece of the Mexican and Mexican-American experience, weaving both past and present. The production is brought to life by the playwright’s full-blooded characters and by his loving reverence for Spanish and Latin American folklore. (It is worth noting that the stories of “Pedro Urdamales” and “Juan Bobo” [More about him later…!] have been told for hundreds of years.) Adorned by live music by Luis D’Elias, Garcia’s play not only reminds us that these tales of inspiration will be with us for eternity, but also that these precious stories serve as MORE than just entertainment or as a conduit for family bonding. As we see with the characters in Eight Tales of Pedro, storytelling can also serve as a survival mechanism in increasingly uncertain times.
Eight Tales of Pedro introduces the audience to its characters, who are en route to an unnamed destination. Thrown together by fate, the four men (Felipe [Richard E. Calvache], Rene [Federico Mallet], Alfonso [Andy Price], and Peter [Stephen Santana]) and two women (Genoveva [Paulina de la Parra] and Escolastica [Maria Renee Lavalle]) become a fast family of sorts. One character declares early on, “We should all introduce ourselves. It’s going to be a long trip!” While these strangers on a van are initially somewhat wary, they soon warm up to each other. Likewise, thanks to the charisma and acting talents of the performers, the audience quickly warms up to the characters as well. We legitimately care about their experiences and are drawn into the stories they tell, becoming fascinated with the journey of the play’s titular “Pedro” (brought to life, via story, largely thanks to Andy Price’s Alfonso.) from “bebé” to the original “bad hombre”.
Eight Tales of Pedro is the quintessential example of an ensemble cast, where the actors all work in fine synergy together. All the performers excel at playing multiple characters when their imaginations are allowed to run wild, and all are able to fluidly slide between the “real” world– confined by the claustrophobic limits of a windowless van– and the world of “Pedro”‘s seemingly never-ending fantasia. While they work very well together, each of the six performers all have their moments to shine on their own as well. The subject matter in Eight Tales of Pedro can occasionally get heavy (particularly in the play’s final scenes), but there is no shortage of humor in the production’s 95-minute running time. This includes some truly laugh-out-loud moments, as well as many one-liners and pieces of dialogue which seemed to be particularly appreciated by the native Spanish speakers in the audience. (On the night I saw the play, it was performed almost entirely in English with Spanish projected subtitles.) On the subject of humor, three performers in the cast particularly stand out. The first is Richard E. Calvache as Felipe, who is transformed via story from everything to the over-the-top, vain, horse-obsessed villain “Don Jose” to a quick-witted burro (Make that “burra”…) who helps the titular Pedro dupe his captors with a variation of the “goose who laid the golden egg” fable. Equally gifted in the comedic arts is Paulina de la Parra, whose Genoveva becomes “Gloria”, Don Jose’s ambitious socialite of a wife and “the most glamorous character” of the stories. Her performance is irresistibly campy. Now, about “Juan Bobo”: Stephen Santana, as Peter, is perfect when he becomes the… shall we say, “naive” (Never say “dumb”!) trickster who winds up being Pedro’s unlikely ally.
Garcia’s script combines drama, humor, and unflinching realism– occasionally, all together at the same time. The stories of “Pedro” and his “supporting cast” of equally colorful characters date back to the “New Spain” of 1618. Fast forward to 2023, and the experiences faced by Felipe, Genoveva, Escolastica, Rene, Alfonso, and Peter of Eight Tales of Pedro are more important than ever, making audience members realize that there are actual feelings and life experiences behind the faceless statistics reported (and exploited) in news stories about immigrants. Issues of ethnicity are also fearlessly explored in the play, from the dialogue about Mexico’s old Casta System, to modern day observations about colorism and prejudice (As one of the characters states, “Brown equals an identity, whether you like it or not.“)
“Pedro”, in all his transgenerational reincarnations, would be proud!
Eight Tales of Pedro continues at Queens Theatre, 14 United Nations Ave South, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park through Sunday, May 14th, with performances on Friday 8PM, Saturday at 2PM and 8PM, and Sunday at 3PM. Visit http://www.EightTalesofPedro.com for tickets and more information.
(Photography by Dominick Totino Photography.)