Ching Valdes-Aran in Erendira(Photo: Tom Brasil)
Ching Valdes-Aran in Erendira
(Photo: Tom Brasil)
It's not easy to critique Erendira, the new theater piece directed by Kristin Marting and based on Gabriel García Márquez's The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother that is currently playing downtown at the HERE Arts Center. It may be that the secret to enjoying this strange and dreamy play, steeped in García Márquez's magical realism, is to avoid trying to decipher it.

If you don't focus too much on the poetically cryptic dialogue and movement or the sometimes puzzling projections and video feed, the story is very simple: One night a young girl called Erendira (Elisa Terrazas), who lives with her grandmother (Ching Valdes-Aran), leaves a candle burning and the wind knocks it over, setting a blaze that causes one million pesos worth of damage. The heartless old woman forces her granddaughter to prostitute herself in order to pay back the debt. Eventually, the girl meets a winged boy named Ulises (Janio Marrero) and then goes about trying to free herself from the clutches of her grandmother, finally asking Ulises to murder her -- a task that proves to be unusually difficult.

Erendira is the culmination of a collaborative process involving musicians, puppeteers, designers, and other artists, and the result is striking. They've created an atmosphere that is more eerie than magical, but captivating. It's a strange vision of a desert world where all the men are literally puppets (save for sweet Ulises) and the strains of an accordion are continually heard in the background (the original music is by Todd Griffin, played by Sebastian Cruz and Uri Sharlin). This distinctive atmosphere actually seems to overwhelm the García Márquez text (some additions were supplied by Ruth Margraff), which is used sparingly and probably not to optimal effect; there are only a handful of occasions where the poetry of the great writer's words really resonates, and there is a lack of clarity in the script.

Even if what it all adds up to is not fully satisfying, there is much to marvel at in the production. Lake Simons's gaunt, thin-limbed puppets are impressively creepy, and skillfully operated and acted by Alex Endy and Marc Petrosino. Costumer Nancy Brous has created a fascinating contraption for the grandmother that is part costume, part set piece. Valdes-Aran is wickedly delightful as the cruel old woman, and Terrazas and Marrero do a fabulous tango together. There are many memorable moments -- visual, aural, and humorous -- throughout that make Erendira a unique, if at times inscrutable, theatrical experience.