That Ol’ Black Magic

Tanya Saracho’s “Enfrascada” at Renaissance Theatreworks. Yesenia is a hurricane on high heels, quick to anger and quicker to spot a possible conquest at a nightclub, using her impressive form and venir aquí looks to draw his attention from across the room. Carolina is more the shrinking violet, taking in the world with deer-in-the-headlights eyes even as she tries to ward off bad luck with a collection of OCD tics. Lulu is a New Age soothsayer, dishing out freshly squeezed celery juice and quoting pithy tidbits from Melville and Lord Byron, often while meditatively bouncing on an exercise ball. Alicia—well,…

Tanya Saracho’s
“Enfrascada” at Renaissance Theatreworks.

Yesenia is a hurricane on high heels, quick to anger and quicker to spot a possible conquest at a nightclub, using her impressive form and venir aquí looks to draw his attention from across the room. Carolina is more the shrinking violet, taking in the world with deer-in-the-headlights eyes even as she tries to ward off bad luck with a collection of OCD tics. Lulu is a New Age soothsayer, dishing out freshly squeezed celery juice and quoting pithy tidbits from Melville and Lord Byron, often while meditatively bouncing on an exercise ball. Alicia—well, Alicia is a mess. Her man has done gone, and she’s struggling.

Therein lies the play—Tanya Saracho’s madcap and moving Enfrascada, which opened Saturday night in a rambunctious production by Renaissance Theatreworks. Four friends, one traumatic event, and a journey into revenge and remedy via curandera—the “traditional” world of mystic healers and folk magic.

But Enfrascada is about folk magic in the same way that Sex in the City is about journalism. Alicia’s visits to three healers (all brilliantly played by the chameleon-like Annie Henk) have something to say about the uneasy mix of old and new in the Hispanic community. But this is a play about friendship, and in that way it speaks to everyone.

But “speak” doesn’t really do Saracho’s supercharged and hilarious banter justice. Without venturing into the 1-2-3-punchline rhythms of sit-com-ville, Saracho’s characters engage in some of the funniest dialogue I’ve heard onstage in a long time, even as they slip in asides in Spanish.

Director Michelle Lopez-Rios handles it perfectly, opting for conversational rhythms that jumble and overlap Altman-style but create a heady music as well. There are laugh-lines galore, but not a bit of staginess in ensemble scenes that crackle and pop with energy.

It helps to have a cast that can embody Saracho’s slightly larger-than-life characters, and Renaissance’s ensemble of actors is more than capable. Yunuen Pardo (Carolina) and Yadira Correa (Yesenia) have outsized comic chops that serve their parts well. Karen Estrada (Lulu and several other bit parts)—who, after her stint in Danceworks What’s So Funny? is fast becoming one of the funniest women on Milwaukee stages—is hilariously deadpan and earnest. And Rana Roman gives a touching performance that pushes the right emotional buttons when the story needs it.

While Enfrascada is the first “Hispanic” play produced on Milwaukee stages in a long time, this is not niche-market drama. It’s a feast of pleasures that should be enjoyed by everyone. 

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Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.