Parents like Leticia, the mother character in Lexington Children's Theatre's latest show, Senora Tortuga, really do mean well.
A Mexican mother of two who struggles to keep food on the table, Leticia (Chelsea Skylar Canestraro) will not teach her son and daughter anything that is not literal, confirmable fact. She wants to spare her children the disappointment of the real world, of learning that there is no magic but an abundance of hard work. That means there's no storytelling in their household, no imaginative speculating, no pretending, and not surprisingly, no fun ... until Senora Tortuga (Michelle Pokopac) arrives.
The play, by Roxanne Shroeder-Arce, is told in both English and Spanish and marks the LCT directorial debut of Adalhí Aranda, who also directs Bluegrass Youth Ballet. A Mexican-American herself, Aranda fluidly balances the play's Spanish language and English language elements in this elegant production.
Rustic scenic design by Josafath Reynoso suggests the family's meager resources, which are contrasted with a wild, flowing river nearby. That river is the home of Senora Tortuga, a magical grandmotherly figure who can turn into a turtle. Or perhaps it is the other way around. She visits Leticia's children Pedro (Joseph Schoborg) and Claudio (Jennifer Diaz) to infuse to give them what they're really hungry for — stories.
Much to Leticia's chagrin, Senora Tortuga joyfully draws the children into the imaginative world of El Cucuoy, El Dorado, and other Mexican folk tales.
The biggest challenge to the actors — and the audience — is the rapid switching between English and Spanish phrasings. Aranda masterfully instructed her cast when it comes to delivering this language accurately (with the right accent and pronunciation) and with enough context clues in the action for non-Spanish speakers to understand the dialogue.
To be clear, the show is mostly in English, but connective language like exclamations or transitions are often in Spanish. Easy words to digest or pick up from context, words like "pero" instead of "but," are liberally used. That makes it a great show for children studying Spanish, but you don't have to understand another language to enjoy the show. I took an almost four-year old with me to the opening performance and he still knew what was going on without understanding every word.
Pokopac delivers a particularly inspiring, mirthful performance as Senora Tortuga; much of the show depends on her physical portrayal of a turtle-like grandmother (or a grandmother-like turtle). Her sense of comic timing earned plenty of laughter from youngsters in the audience. Eric Abele's costume designs for her character also add playful charm to the role.
With performing and technical elements fluidly interrelating, it's easy to see the influence of a dancer at the helm. Aranda's directorial debut of a "straight" play is a promising one that emphasizes the importance of storytelling and magic in our own lives.