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If you were looking to put a face to the growth and vitality of the Boston theater community you might just pick Melinda Lopez. Long a fixture as a charismatic local actor as well as a budding playwright in the Boston Playwrights' Theatre pipeline, Lopez was chosen by the Huntington Theatre Company to open the Calderwood Pavilion in 2004 with her riveting drama about Cuba, "Sonia Flew." It represented a shift on the part of the Huntington from a New York-centric view of the theater world to one that recognized Boston’s pool of acting and playwriting talent as well.
ArtsEmerson joined the Lopez fan club in 2016 as David Dower directed her superb one-woman show, "Mala," primarily about caring for her ailing 92-year-old mother. The Huntington, where she is playwright-in-residence, remounted the award-winning show the following season. It was recorded there by WGBH, who will air the broadcast, along with YouTube TV, at 10 p.m. Thursday night (April 9) amid a season in which the collateral damage to the theater community has been catastrophic. It will also be available for 30 days starting Friday (April 10) on WGBH's website.
This is the place I’m supposed to say that it’s nice to have an archive of the production, but you should have seen it in the theater. While I try not to have preconceptions about what I’m reviewing, that’s more or less what I was expecting to say. TV just can’t capture the communal, kinetic, blah, blah, blah of live theater.
That is not at all what I’m going to say. As much as I loved the ArtsEmerson production I was never so impressed by Lopez as a playwright and actor as I was by the phenomenal job that director-cinematographer-editor Greg Shea and his WGBH crew have done in transferring “Mala” to the small screen. As more and more of the arts world transfers online — temporarily, hopefully — Shea has created something of a high-definition template for how to maintain what makes live arts so special while turning it into an absorbing television experience that can go head-to-head with the best of Netflix or HBO.
Lopez creates a world that is devastatingly personal and shatteringly universal.
Lopez certainly gives Shea and company plenty to work with. At a time when family members can’t even get in to see their loved ones in their last days, Lopez recalls her experiences tending to a 92-year-old Cuban emigré who was becoming increasingly frail and disoriented. It’s a journey that many of us have been on, but Lopez on her iPhone journal stops to smell the roses and, more often as not, get pricked by the thorns.
She plays good cop to her sister’s bad, looking in on her mother up to 15 times a day — that might be a joke as Lopez leavens the landscape with well-placed doses of smart humor amid the pathos. “Mala” is Spanish for bad, though it’s more like 'bad' as in 'bad cop.' Lopez tells us it means bad to the core, but her mother aims it at her, the “good cop” as well as at the “bad” sister. When Lopez wants to take her to the hospital, she is just as mala as her sister. But what’s the alternative? Let her die at home as she grows increasingly demented and frail?
This is all part of the too familiar playbook of caring for parents who brought us into the world but can no longer care for themselves. There is nothing commonplace, though, about how the casually-dressed, sneakered, pony-tailed Lopez tells her story — the dark thoughts about thinking of her mother living another 10 years, the slap that Lopez gives her daughter in fear and frustration, the recitation in Spanish of her mother’s anger and fears — “Who am I? Where do I come from? … something is missing.”
Onstage, Lopez prowled somewhat manically, pausing to gather her thoughts, ruefully self-incriminating, reaching for a dog leash to find some release from the pressure. Talk about tour de force, hers was a force to be reckoned with. That’s what I guessed would have been missing from the broadcast.
If anything, the mastery of Lopez’s performance is heightened. She looks as if she’s living every moment for the first time; the fluidity of Shea’s camerawork takes us in close for Lopez’s shifts from irony to self-deprecation, anger to sadness, all with a superb sense of timing on Lopez's part and an equally assured sense on Shea's about when to cut and when to linger. If you can’t easily capture the communality of theater on television, you can’t easily capture the close-up intimacy of television in the theater and Shea captures that intimacy with equal amounts of craft and art.
The subject matter, while not easy, is never less than absorbing. Lopez sure knows how to tell a story as when her father is found walking around in a haze of dementia — “I told my terrified daughter when we went to pick up my terrified father ‘I will never be that old.’" It’s a simple sentence, but one that’s haunting on any number of levels.
Lopez does not go in for easy pop transcendence in caring for her parents. “It’s not like the movies,” she declares. It’s not like most theatrical plays about aging for that matter. Lopez creates a world that is devastatingly personal and shatteringly universal. To say that the broadcast does her play justice is underrating it. As the theater community looks for ways of preserving its work — in good times as well as in bad — take a good look at “Mala.”
“Mala” airs at 10 p.m. Thursday on WGBH-TV, Channel 2, and then will be available for the next 30 days online.
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