Navigating trauma through fantasy in ‘Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares’ at NYC’s The Tank

As part of its 20th anniversary season of Core Productions, NYC’s The Tank, founded in 2003, and dedicated to supporting new work and providing a home for emerging artists and companies, is now presenting Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares, written by Christine Stoddard, with direction by Fiamma Piacentini. The original piece is told in the format of a memory play, exploring the coming-of-age journey of Maya, a young Salvadoran-American living in Phoenix, Arizona, through poetic language (in both English and Spanish), movement and dance, and fantasy segments of magical creatures, family mythology, and folklore, to cope with the traumas of three generations of women in her lineage – the titular grandmother (abuela) she never knew, the mother who withheld her love, and herself, on her own path to self-reliance and empowerment.

Andie Fuentes and Telba Cavero. Photo by Mari Eimas-Dietrich.

The nonlinear account is relayed by Maya, played by the expressive, engaging, and sympathetic Andie Fuentes, in lyrical direct-address narration, interspersed with enacted scenes and imaginings of the key episodes and people from her childhood to her teen years and adulthood. Her familial recollections include the troubled relationship between Maya and her immigrant Mami, whose sad and distant demeanor is painfully embodied by Lupita Asto; the stories her mother told her time and time again about her long-deceased Abuela, embodied by Telba Cavero, who appears in an unsmiling framed portrait-come-to-life and haunts the girl’s psyche; and the absence of her hateful American father, played with racist and sexist venom by understudy Aaron Gold, filling in for Addy Marsh at the performance I attended, who abandoned her pregnant single mother and considered her nothing more than “a mistake.”

Beyond the dynamics within her immediate family, Maya also experiences a shocking encounter with a local Arizona Sheriff (also well played by Gold), whose actions tie her to the devastating struggles of her grandmother and a long-held secret revealed by her emotionally damaged mother. And she is visited in her active mind by visions of ancestral women performing ritual ceremonies (portrayed by Adriana Ascensio and Ash Patlan), an ominous sadistic jaguar with a long whip for a tail (the third of Gold’s multiple roles) that leaves her cowering, and two more playful jaguars, a helpful owl, and anthropomorphic cacti (Ascensio and Ash), who provide relief from the human viciousness of her early years, and manifest the indigenous wildlife and plants of her matrilineal native land.

Andi Fuentes, Adriana Ascensio, and Ash Patlan. Photo by Mari Eimas-Dietrich.

Along with the fine cast’s evocative performances, the hypnotic show is reliant on a sometimes frightening, sometimes delightful, and always transporting artistic design that brings Maya’s memories and fantasies to life with a dreamlike sensibility. Rodrigo Escalante’s set features an oversized garland of flowers suspended on the back wall, behind a floating picture frame with memorial candles below, a simple gravesite marked by a cross, a kitchen table and chairs, and props by Stoddard, all enhanced by Jen Leno’s surreal lighting effects. Costumes by Piacentini combine the contemporary American clothing of Maya and Mami with the traditional Salvadoran garb of the ancestral women, and childlike Halloween-style outfits and masks for the plants and animals. And a redolent soundscape by Sebastian Gutierrez invokes the noises and heritage of both countries and provides the music to which the real and fanciful figures move (movement direction by Piacentini), with lively segments of dance by Mami (which received a mid-show ovation when I was there), the joyous jaguars, and a teenage Maya and her friends.

Mi Abuela presents an entrancing mix of poetry and fantasy with harsh reality, to cope with the nightmarish truths in the life of a mixed-race youth. It’s a powerful story, a beautifully inventive production, and a captivating must-see piece of experimental theater, with important insights into the immigrant experience.

Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, without intermission.

Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares, plays through Sunday, October 1, 2023, at The Tank, 312 West 36th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $25-50, plus fees), go online. Proof of COVID vaccination and medical-grade masks are required.


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