Lords of the Ring: Prism Movement Theatre's Lucha Teotl Melds Mythology, Wrestling, and Drama
By Adrian Cook
Prism Movement Theatre’s latest work, Lucha Teotl, presented as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, invites audiences to experience the LTA (Lucha Teotl Alliance) – a wrestling league “where the lines between myth and reality are blurred.” The brainchild of writers/co-directors Jeff Colangelo and Chris Ramirez, Lucha Teotl invites audiences to participate in a full-on wrestling show, encouraging patrons to don their own luchador masks, come ready to cheer and boo, and to bring signs supporting LTA luchadores. (Not to worry; if you want to join the fun there is a sign-making station as you enter the theatre, and paper masks and luchador-inspired face-coverings may be purchased in the lobby.) Trust me, you want to join the fun. Is Lucha Teotl a play or a wrestling show? Yes to both. It is a play that uses lucha libre as its dominant mode of storytelling, and it may be the most fun you’ve ever had at the theatre.
Professional wrestling. Whatever your views on this mainstay of sports entertainment in the Americas, its pan-generational popularity and commercial success make it an integral part of our culture, and a unique mode of storytelling. The stories we tell process and transmit our cultural values. Progressive or conservative, they tend to reinforce our master narratives – the meta-stories that guide our sense of individual self and collective cultural identities. Our understanding of what constitutes masculinity and femininity, national pride, ethics, and morality; these are all products of the master narrative, and the more popular the medium that carries the story, the more they guide our sense of value. And wrestling is undoubtedly popular.
I grew up watching WWF (now WWE) in the 80s. Looking back, I recognize the specific signature of the Cold War, a “might makes right” ideology, and the rampant marginalization of LGBTQ+ individuals in the world of WWF’s faces (good guys) and heels (bad guys). Heels like the Iron Sheik, Nikita “the Russian Nightmare” Koloff, and the queer-coded Adrian Adonis squared off against beloved faces the likes of Hulk Hogan, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan (who always carried an American flag), and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. There were also, however, the enduring archetypal storylines about loyalty, pride, and even corporate corruption via “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase’s shtick: “everyone has a price.” As the WWF became the WWE and society progressed, so too did the storylines. As antiheros like Walter White and Tony Soprano took over the American airwaves, the heel-as-hero storyline appeared in wrestling. What is more, there is a reverence for wrestling stars, a respect for the old guard, who endorse and assist (or oppose) the new generation, mirroring the inherent continuity alongside disruption that characterizes the transfer of generational power in “the real world.”
I would argue that pro wrestling is indeed a “high art,” a carrier of cultural mythology, and the most popular (hence viable) form of contemporary theatre. (Remember, though it is televised, the matches are witnessed live.) If I needed any confirmation of this assessment, Prism’s wrestling extravaganza delivers it with a decisive three-count.
In Lucha Teotl, the ATL reaches deeper into the mythological ethos than the standard wrestling leagues. Lucha Teotl does for Aztec mythology what Neil Gaiman’s American Gods did for European pantheons, imagining emanations or representations of deities embodied in contemporary human forms…and occupations. Aztec deities as represented by luchadores only makes sense. It is a pantheon full of infighting, shifting control of the corporeal world, sacrifice, and, often, the use of human beings for amusement.
The truth is ancient mythologies are not merely relics of the past, disconnected from our current circumstance. They are the building blocks of human civilization. Whether one takes the existence of mythological deities literally or not, myths were and always are metaphorical; they are always instructive, a search for deep truth. And, like the shrewdest figures in any given pantheon, they are adaptable. There are at least three versions of the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris. These are not inconsistent texts but differing generational retellings. The details change, as do the themes that are emphasized, one over the other, and the values evolve; but the primal forces being reckoned with persist.
In Aztec mythology, the world has been destroyed and reborn four times. Each of the previous worlds saw different deities “on top,” and each world ended and began again in cataclysm. It is an idea that jives perfectly with the generational cycles of wrestling and social progress. Prism brilliantly merges the mythology with the dramatic world of the LTA and its luchadores, who hand their masks – representative of their power and mystique – down to the next generation. Each “cycle” represents a new world, a re-birth and re-formation of the league. The idea of a new generation offering new promise is definitely one of Lucha Teotl’s prominent themes.
The first match of Lucha Teotl begins a new epoch as Tezca, God of the Smoking Mirror (Bobby Garcia), in his retirement match, meets Huitzi, representing the Sun God, in his premier match. What unfolds is a story of alliances made and broken, of jealousy, of pride and power – the stuff of myth…and the stuff of wrestling.
Lucha Teotl is a straight-up wrestling show, and a damn good one at that. The combat is professional grade, which is unsurprising with choreography by veteran luchador Aski “The Mayan Warrior,” who lends his mentorship and mastery of the craft to the talented cast. And the cast delivers as a cohesive ensemble.
The look and the environment also land. Nicole Alvarez’s costume design captures the luchador look and aptly establishes the hierarchy of each fighter within the pantheon/league. Matt Smith’s set design creates an authentic ring, entryway, and perimeter, throwing in a special nod to Aztec architecture, while Jonah Gutierrez, Jacobe Beltran, and Safwan Chowdhury lock it in with lighting, video, and projection design that holds its own with my memories of attending WWE Raw live.
From the Comentaristas (Omar Padilla and Ana Armenta) to the Referee (Chris D’Auria) and the Maestrtro de Ceremonias (Rafael Tamayo), whose improv keeps the event unified, and the crowd involved, everyone does their bit to weave a holistically engaging show, including the roving camera operators, Matt Lancaster and Max Torres, whose presence completes the experience of a wrestling program.
Then there are the combatants themselves. Colangelo, Ramirez, and Aski take advantage of the idea that how we fight, how we compete, is who we are, creating opportunities for strong characterization. And the lords of the ring bring it. Everyone deserves a shout-out here. Garcia returns to the ring as Rabbit and Xotol, and each luchador has a unique style and swagger. The same is true of Tatiana Gantt’s “drunken” Rabbit and formidable Quetza, Jennifer Ramirez’s Centeotl and Xochipilli, and Guarav Bhaskir’s Opochtli and Itztlacoliuhqui. Even more impressive are the leads, Dylan Cantu as Huitzi, and Luis Palomino as Coyol. In a normal night of wrestling, combatants fight one, maybe two matches. The Sun and Moon tag team are in the ring all night thanks to the theatrical convention of blackouts signaling time-jumps. Huitzi, eager and excitable, fiery like the star he represents, juxtaposes Coyol’s darker tidal force. Dragging Huitzi in his wake, drama unfolds in the LTA.
I mean drama as both an indicator of action and of performative medium. Lucha Teotl is like an episode of WWE Raw or WCW Nitro with a traditionally theatrical overlay. The fact that Prism’s work is indeed a play is evidenced most strongly in the second act, including a climactic ending too good to spoil. The two modalities meld into a seamless singularity. And here’s the kicker – what Lucha Teotl achieves because it embraces the conventions of both drama and lucha libre is what, according to Aristotle, theatre is supposed to achieve – katharsis, a spontaneous communal outpouring of emotion. Today, we refer to this phenomenon as communitas, and it is generally reserved for a buzzer-beating sports victory or for social drama, like a major courtroom trial. When Prism combines sport and drama proper, executes so well as to create audience buy-in, then hits us with the thematic body slam, they create a formula for a cathartic communitas greater than one will experience at just about any other “traditional” theatrical production.
During the final match and dramatic climax, the audience was cheering the face, booing the heel, banging on every available surface, chanting, and yelling. Then silence. Then cheering again. Then, a participatory denouement. I can honestly say that I had the experience of being incredibly familiar with (and at home within) all of the employed conventions, yet, holistically, I’ve never seen anything like it. You don’t want to miss this one!
Lucha Teotl by Jeffrey Colangelo and Chris Ramirez, presented by Prism Movement Theater is playing through July 25, 2021 at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theater. Lucha Teotl is produced in collaboration with Lucha Teotl Alliance, and part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Elevator Project 2021 season. Reserve your tickets here: www.attpac.org/on-sale/2021/lucha-teotl/.