The Queen Gets a Makeover

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Sunday Calendar

A towering pyramid, outlined in neon, opens its doors to allow the entrance of a low-rider car shaped like a red stilletto high heel. Opera singers dressed as Mexican cabaret entertainers hold forth from raised platforms. A film sequence projects on a screen between the pyramid and a wrestling arena.

Warriors sport cholo Pendletons and bandannas and race to nowhere on stationary exercise bikes. A dance troupe of blue-skinned Carmen Mirandas is trapped in a bamboo cage. And an array of other characters sport garb ranging from Zapatista ski masks and exotic "native" headdresses to full-on 17th century British court regalia. They speak a dizzying mix of Spanish, English, Spanglish, Old English and an array of California dialects from surfer dude to Valley gal.

The look is part Acapulco tourist bar, part postmodern melange and all kitsch. But such is the weird world of Long Beach Opera's current production of Henry Purcell and John Dryden's "The Indian Queen," first performed in 1695.

Clearly, this is not a faithful re-creation of the Baroque original--right down to the title and the main credits: For Long Beach's purposes, "The Indian Queen" has become "La Indian Queen," and listed with English composer Purcell and Restoration dramatist Dryden is--hold on to your fanfares--Guillermo Gomez- Pen~a.

Influenced by both Mexico's Grupo movement of the 1970s and Chicano culture, the Mexican-born, CalArts-trained performance artist Gomez-Pen~a is a MacArthur genius grant recipient best known for his multimedia, multilingual critiques of the dominant culture. In 1995's "Borderama," for instance, Gomez-Pen~a appeared onstage in an outsized sombrero, boots and not much else while recounting sins committed during time spent north of the border. In 1992's "The Year of the White Bear," the artist and his collaborator Coco Fusco decked themselves out as ersatz natives and put themselves on display in a cage.

He is collaborating on this project with Elaine Katzenberger, with whom he co-adapted the Dryden text, and director David Schweizer. The piece is conducted by Andreas Mitisek, with choreography by Sara Shelton Mann and film by Gustavo Vasquez.

It may be his first foray into the world of opera, but Gomez-Pen~a is well aware that his approach is anything but business as usual. "This project is really dangerous, for many reasons," says the artist, seated in a rehearsal room with his collaborators on Memorial Day weekend. "I keep thinking of the image of walking on very thin ice."

Leave it to Long Beach Opera to come up with "La Indian Queen."

"It's typical of, and a tribute to, Long Beach," says Schweizer, who has worked with the company on two previous occasions. "There are very few theaters [and] no opera theaters in this country dedicated to pushing the boundaries of modern theater-making. [But] this organization has been sponsoring this [kind of] work for a decade now."

Yet "La Indian Queen" is gutsy even by Long Beach Opera standards. "It's certainly as extreme, if not the most extreme, approach that we've taken to any work--extreme in the sense that we credit Guillermo right up there with Purcell and Dryden," says Long Beach Opera general director Michael Milenski, who had been wanting to stage the Purcell piece for years before the idea for this particular version was hatched. "We realize that we're departing from many of the obvious intentions of the Dryden text."

More of a play with music than a fully integrated opera, Dryden's script for "The Indian Queen" is set in an imaginary version of pre-Columbian Latin America. It centers on a conflict between "Incas" and "Aztecs" and tells the story of a power-mad queen who usurps her brother's throne to pave the way for her own son to rule. She, however, is in turn deposed, which clears the way for the exiled rightful heir to return and rise to power.

It's not what you'd call an accurate portrait of early indigenous culture. "It's one of the most problematic texts I've ever read in my life," says Gomez-Pen~a. "It's filled with Europe's rejection [of] the Americas and with historical inaccuracies. The libretto doesn't have an internal logic and all the 'Indians' behave like British royalty. Everything is absolutely fictional."

The intended political lesson, however, is clear. "Dryden was a real monarchist," explains Katzenberger. "It really has nothing to do with what's happening in [the Americas] at that time. It's about the usurpation of the throne and the restoration of the true monarch."

But the piece was probably created for reasons more pragmatic than ideological. "Imagine the origins of the commission: These British travelers go to the Amazon in the 17th century and steal a bunch of headdresses from indigenous groups and shamans and bring them back to England," says Gomez-Pen~a. "Suddenly the British royalty decide that they want to show off a [new] actress wearing these costumes and they ask Dryden to write a text."

Fragments of that text do survive in "La Indian Queen," but the change that Gomez-Pen~a and Katzenberger have wrought has been drastic. The script has been substantially truncated and reworked, moving the action to a modern-day Latin America replete with cellular phones, yuppie tourists, rap and Zapatistas. Although the Aztecs and Incas have been replaced by two more generalized bands of power-mongers, the basic story remains in place, as do the key characters, who have been recast as 20th century versions of themselves.

Still, as much as the text may depart from Dryden, the songs remain the same. "Long Beach, for all the craziness of the project, is always somewhat scrupulous about actually presenting these things in a musically and structurally legitimate way," says Schweizer. "The idea was that this would be presented with all of the elements of the [original] 'masque'--that it would include the music and some sort of text as play, and that the music would come into and out of the action at the same times as was indicated in the old script."

The original idea for the seemingly odd coupling of Gomez-Pen~a and Purcell-Dryden came from Long Beach Opera board member Marjorie Beale, a professor of history at UC Irvine, and Milenski's artistic assistant, Christopher Fuelling, who is also the associate producer of the project.

Milenski and Fuelling took the trek to meet with Gomez-Pen~a in San Francisco, where the frequently touring artist is based. "I entered his studio and immediately thought it was the most amazing fit," says Milenski, recalling his response to the array of installation pieces, graphics and other visual artworks that he saw there. "I had not seen Guillermo's work, but I know a good idea when I see one."

Gomez-Pen~a, however, wasn't immediately convinced. "I am not particularly fond of opera for two reasons: for its epic spirit, and for its master discourse--its totalitarian worldview. In a time in which everything is fractured and fragmented, and there is no space in the world anymore for an epic voice," he says.

"At first I said no. But then when I found out it was 'The Indian Queen' of Dryden, I got excited."

It was an opera that would allow Gomez-Pen~a to raise issues that have long been central to his art. "I am very interested in the mythical constructions of identity," says Gomez-Pen~a. "I am very much interested in processes of acculturation. And the script was precisely about that. In a strange way, it was very contemporary."

What Gomez-Pen~a sees in the work--with late 20th century hindsight--is the way it illuminates lingering attitudes toward the cultural Other. "In talking about the original cultural values of the piece, you can tell there are two kinds of 'savages' in the New World for the British royalty: those who are colonizeable and those who aren't," he says. "And certainly the Indian queen is not."

"Then suddenly we look at the present, at the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, at border politics, and we realize that the very same subject matter is still with us," he continues. "There are those who are uncolonizeable and wild and fearful, and there are those who are tamed 'savages.' "

In part by modernizing the characters in "The Indian Queen," Gomez-Pen~a and Katzenberger seek to emphasize the distinction between those who can be tamed and those who cannot. And this dichotomy echoes the plot's chief conflict, which is between those who are "meant" to rule and those who usurp the throne.

Due in part to his commitments elsewhere, Gomez-Pen~a decided to serve as a kind of artistic director for the project, with someone else doing the actual staging of the piece. And so Schweizer joined the team.

"Up to the point where David jumped on the boat, we felt a tremendous ownership for the vision, and the vision had been meticulously outlined in long staging directions that went on forever," says Gomez-Pen~a. "And now that we have created a new hybrid model of collaboration, my role is more and more to step back and to cede authorship and to be able to share the vision."

Schweizer has had the primary responsibility for directing a chorus, three lead singers and a cast of actors led by Sharon Barr as the Indian Queen, Armando Duran as her villainous consort El Transala, Javier Grajeda as the outsider and secret heir El Moctezuma's Revenge, and Eric Szmanda as the Queen's stoner-surfer son, Acaso.

Nor is Schweizer's creative input limited to staging. He, for example, was the one who suggested casting tall blond Barr in the role of the queen.

Clearly, this wasn't a case of typecasting. "The logical solution would be to recruit a super Latina, a super chola, for the Indian Queen," says Gomez-Pen~a. "And in fact, the original conversations were along those lines. Then at one point, David goes, 'I know this wonderful Anglo actress.'

"We met with her and it was perfect," he continues. "The Indian Queen should not be Latina, because in fact the original actress was a British actress, and the whole piece is a Europe projection onto the Americas. So this of course generates very tricky questions. You are trying to do a Chicano opera and the main actress is an Anglo. We all know the conflictive history of debates around that."

Yet the creators felt such a bold stroke was needed, in part because the queen carries so much of the play's symbolic meaning. "It's basically not only racist, but extremely misogynist," says Katzenberger. "The Indian Queen is this paradigm that goes way back, all about this feral untamed female sexuality and how scary that is. At the same time that Dryden is writing this in Europe, they're burning witches."

The audience's response to this character should be complicated, say the collaborators, but no more so than their reaction to the piece as a whole.

"Basically what we're trying to do is turn the table 360 degrees, reversing the gaze," says Gomez-Pen~a. "Assuming a fictional center and pushing the dominant culture to the margins, [we] treat it as exotic and unfamiliar. So in a very strange and eliptic way, this piece is about everything but the Americas and everything but indigenous culture.

"It's about the fascination that Europe has always had with this continent, with indigenous America," he continues. "It is about visiting indigenous America without having to suffer it. It is about making it palatable, presentable and sexy for the European aristocracy in the 17th century. And this is what contemporary cultural tourism is about."

*

"The Indian Queen," Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. Today, 4 p.m.; Saturday, 8 p.m. $30-$70. (562) 985-7000.

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