“Yamel Cucuy,” a new devised play from Glass Half Full Theatre, performed at Ground Floor Theatre, is an eerie epic. Combining horror elements and mesmerizing puppetry, the show follows 13-year-old Yamel (Gricelda Silva) through a world full of dangers both supernatural and human.
A shadow puppet sequence by Connor Hopkins, Indigo Rael and Caroline Reck introduces Yamel and her older brother Xavier (Gustavo Martinez), who years before, traveled across the border from Mexico into the United States, where they live with their Tia Zaira (Lori Navarrete).
As their mother (voiced by Anna Skidas Vargas) sent her children on this journey, she gave them warnings in the form of folklore — scary stories to keep them safe. She sang of La Lechuza, a witch in the form of an owl, El Viejo, an old man looking for kids to snatch, Las Lloronas, mothers who drowned their children, and will drown any others they find, and El Cucuy, a monster with an unknown form.
Now, Yamel is being haunted by these same creatures. La Lechuza (Marina DeYoe-Pedraza) flies through the apartment. The disembodied hands of El Viejo (Tane Ward) crawl along the furniture. When El Viejo emerges in the middle of the apartment, faceless and unnaturally tall, from an unassuming pile of blankets, he is truly frightening.
As the danger Yamel faces grows, Rachel Atkinson’s lighting design and the original score by Paul Piñon combine to create a thrilling atmosphere.
Yamel also lives in fear of a less supernatural, but equally dangerous presence: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Everyday, ritualistically, her family goes over their procedures for worst case scenarios involving ICE. Gruff, accusatory, and protected by their uniforms, when the ICE agents appear onstage, the family’s preparations seem more than necessary.
When an attack of the folkloric monsters and an ICE raid follow in quick succession, Yamel has no escape. She finds herself separated from the world of the living, lost, and invisible to her worried family.
The portrayal of Yamel’s death within the play is complex, and full of unknowns, but directly implicates the violence of ICE, both in terms of the fear the agents create and their cruel practices. The succession of events leaves open two possible stories. Moving between them seamlessly, the various interpretations unlocked by this storytelling choice allow the audience to hope for a version in which Yamel is okay. Yamel is never revealed to have survived, but this tension dramatizes the rest of the play.
In a clever doubling move, Gustavo Martinez plays a charismatic version of the Chupacabra called Chupacabrόn in addition to Yamel’s brother Xavier. Less creepy than the other creatures and with a taste for Takis, laid-back Chupacabrόn serves as a guide, taking Yamel to Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, and through its nine levels toward a place of rest.
As Yamel ventures further into Mictlan, her human form is slowly stripped away. Here, she is portrayed by a puppet, which allows for a sense of scale as she navigates aspects of Mictlan like the place where mountains crash into each other. As Yamel’s journey continues, the girl-like puppet is altered to resemble a skeleton.
As Yamel transforms, her kinship with the monsters who haunted her grows. They talk to her, and tell their stories. Running back toward the world of the living, Yamel traps herself in their realm, eventually taking on her own empowering mythology, that of the mysterious Cucuy.
“Yamel Cucuy” shines with creativity. The layered, easy-to-follow combination of Spanish and English text includes humor that builds delightful, fully realized characters. Alongside Yamel, the audience is guided through the unfamiliar Mictlan. The horror elements are chilling without ever becoming grotesque. The mesmerizing puppetry conveys the supernatural well, giving the creatures imposing physical presences and an otherworldliness.
And the story is urgent, speaking directly to the state violence occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border. “Yamel Cucuy” is a rich, human, and deeply felt call to continue fighting for an end to detention for migrants.
“Yamel Cucuy” continues through Nov. 5 at Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale Road., glasshalffulltheatre.com