“Carmen,” the opera from which Generic Ensemble Company has adapted this play, maintains enormous cultural capital nearly a century and a half after its Paris premiere. Think passionate gypsies, hot-blooded Spaniards, “Habanera” and what’s simply become known as “The Toreador Song.”
Then forget all that. If exoticism fuels the popularity of Bizet’s original, Generic Ensemble Company’s “Carmen” reinvents and reclaims difference for the days of #dreamers, #borderwall and #metoo.
Directed by kt shorb and written by the all-Latinx cast, this riff on the classic is set amid queer nightlife in El Paso. Our Carmen is a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient finishing her degree in psychology at El Paso Community College while tending bar in a pair of American flag denim shorts.
Cassandra Reveles breathes welcome humor and heart into the title role’s trademark magnetism and cunning. Her capable voice easily sails through the few musical numbers, but it is her energy that propels the play forward even when it lags. Endearing Previ Cortez (Adam A. Martinez) plays both barkeep and parent in a pseudo-family of regulars — a hipster couple, a busser, a bruja – who keep a sidehustle going as troupe of drag performers. When all at once the ice machine breaks and a crooked duo of ICE officers show up, Carmen must use her wiles to save the ones she loves. Here’s a hint: Bullfighting might be inhumane, but a lap dance works just as well.
Gender and genre are both fluid here, though, and the company — with the help of Aaron Curry’s skillful lighting design — has made flexible the play’s themes and even the idea of an “opera” by employing telenovela tropes to hilarious effect.
In order to bridge the divide between theater and drag, which are “cousins” but require a little translation according to shorb, pre-show performances have been given by local drag performers in the gallery at Dougherty Arts Center throughout the run which ended June 2. Grandma Steven enhances the evening tremendously with her rendition of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” The second act’s climatic drag-show-within-a-show playfully riffs on the characters’ amateurish routines, an entertaining counterpoint to the more adroit Grandma Steven.
Of course, “Carmen” updated for 2018 would be incomplete without a serious edit to the ending. The devilish woman’s atonement through death plot device might play in the opera house, but GenEnCo turns the tables on the nefarious ICE agents, killing them both with errant gunshots.
Then, however, the mystical Stella (siri gurudev) turns the tables on us. Assailing the characters and audience in one breathless, bilingual disquisition, she contends that the officers are not to blame. Gurudev’s performance steals the show as they uses snake blood and ancient magic to raise the dead and our consciousness alike and issuing a reminder to all that it was a border that crossed a people, not the other way around.
“Carmen” is a company-created play governed by its time and place. It can joke about Austin being full of white people in the same beat that an undocumented woman is hauled off to holding in a raid. It’s a soap opera bordered on either side by a drag show and an outrageous comedy bordered by decidedly real politics.
It’s uproarious; it’s bawdy; and inasmuch as Carmen’s denim shorts, it’s altogether patriotic.