A classic opera, telenovelas, border politics and drag shows all offer inspiration for this play
The Generic Ensemble Company may just be Austin’s most explicitly political theater company. With a litany of past work addressing everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to racial profiling to intersectional awareness, Generic Ensemble never shies away from contemporary, controversial subjects.
The company’s latest production, “Carmen,” is no different. Loosely inspired in equal part by the Georges Bizet opera of the same name and by Latin American telenovelas, “Carmen” shares several days in the life of Carmen Julieta Rivera-Melendez, a “Dreamer” working as a bartender and performer in an El Paso gay bar. As such a set-up might imply, the play — written by the ensemble — explores notions of identity on several levels, focusing in large part on the experiences of the Latinx LGBTQ community.
The more overtly political aspects of “Carmen” revolve around two undercover ICE agents who come to the bar in an attempt to find and deport undocumented immigrants. Though this plotline provides the production’s ostensive narrative through-line, “Carmen” is much less focused on plot and more concerned with exploring the issues of identity raised by the characters’ genders, ethnicities, and sexualities, and by the general oppression that they face due to being “other.”
Many of Generic Ensemble’s previous works exploring contemporary topics of identity and oppression have been serious, almost solemn affairs. “Carmen,” however, takes the exact opposite approach. The production is overflowing with joy, mixing together raunchy comedy, clever social satire and an energetic final drag performance that is the highlight of the show.
While still addressing issues such as corruption within ICE and President Donald Trump’s war on the Latinx community, “Carmen” tempers even the darkest moments of the plot with comedy and vivacious life. Director kt shorb has taken many of the post-modern techniques that the company has previously used for tragedy and re-attuned them for pure comedy, and in so doing reflects joyful defiance in the face of explicit oppression.
Cassandra Reveles, as the titular Carmen, embodies the spirited nature of the production, mixing sex appeal with a lust for life and a kind heart. The most energetic performance, though, comes from Jesus I. Valles as Menny Lopez, the owner of the bar and MC of the drag show. His own act in that show is hilarious as well as a sly piece of politically informed performance art. (Note: As of the May 26th performance, Adam Martinez will be appearing instead of Valles.)
“Carmen” is ultimately a relatively straightforward narrative and less elliptical than some of Generic Ensemble’s previous work, and as a result it loses some of the emotional and psychological impact that those earlier productions evinced. Instead, this production focuses on life, love and energy, lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness; a noble endeavor in such dark times.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through June 2
Where: The Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Road