For the 99th year (no really), the Santa Fe Playhouse presents its Fiesta Melodrama. Since the spring, a team of local theater-folk writers have been cataloging all the dumb local drama that's gone on and found ways to cast it humorously, while also mining national politics and universal truths about our weird little city. The resulting show is always campy and perhaps rough around the edges—and this year is no exception, though some standout performances and ballsy jabs made it particularly fun.
In this year's story, out-of-town investor Dick Phillip-Lay (Evan Galpert) comes to the humble, backwards hamlet of Santa Fe to start his new mega-corporation, aiming to "bring true culture and civilization to what could be a great town." (Booooo, hisssssss.) He teams up with an artist named Mia Wulf (an extra-spooky Tristan Van Cleave) and his (their?) collective of humanoid creatures who glow under blacklights. There's a robot involved.
But something seems fishy, and investigative reporter Calamity Daniels (a heroic and self-deprecating Christina Comer) seeks to get to the bottom of Dick Phil-Lay's economic pursuits. "This spat-wearing so-and-so is brainwashing the locals, and I have to do something about it!" she exclaims.
With the help of local go-getter La Reina Lorena Larrañaga (Roxanne Tapia) and her comfort burritos that you can bring into any restaurant in town, she investigates Phil-Lay and Mia Wulf's evil plot to break Santa Fe apart and—gasp!—cancel Fiestas. ("You can't just ignore revisionist history!" Lorena pleads in defense of the event.)
Between mercifully short song parodies (the requisite "Despacito," "La Macarena" and Marty Robbins' "El Paso" all make appearances) accompanied by energetic pianist Mitchell Gustin, the cast offered plenty of of eye-rolly one-liners clearly thrown in just for "look we talked about it"'s sake mixed in with stuff that was really legitimately funny. Standout performances came from a particularly energetic Galpert, who has just the right facial expressions/facial hair for a dapper villain, as well as Eeyore-esque deadpan delivery of relentless horse puns from Horsé Martinez, played by Phil Johnson. (In the audition call for this show, the character description for Horsé simply said: "A horse.")
I couldn't get enough of Katie Johnson's Molly Coddle, a finishing-school rich-white-lady suffragette interloper whose family "owns many small businesses off the sqwuuuuuuuuh." Her perfect Dowager Countess-style voice modulation, stupid pronunciation and often-blank facial expression never grew forced or tired. I could have watched her all evening.
I'd be remiss not to mention Felix Cordova's Buck Starr, who shifts effortlessly between a Curly Howard-style New York city slicker ("I'm headed to Arizona, where I hear there's a fortune to be made in the private prison industry!" he says in the first scene) and his alter ego, an over-the-top Good Ol' Boy police chief who sports a plate-sized hunk of turquoise: Al Hurricane's Mystical Bolo Tie.
A funny performance also came from Scott Plunket as Don Coyote Webber, the ultra-dopey mayor, but we kind of shrugged at the character in general—our actual Don Alcalde Alan Webber hasn't really done anything of note since he was elected in May, and to make fun of him and/or his office to such a degree seems a bit premature. Next time, writers, wait till we have a scandal or a weird quote or something.
This production was co-directed by Artistic Director Vaughn Irving and SFPH board member Andy Primm, and was probably a bit like herding cats—though it should be noted that the cats look awesome, as the duo also coordinated a spate of fantastic costumes.
Lastly, it seemed important for SFR to cover this particular Melo because, without a doubt, the heroine is based on a journalist from our publication; Calamity Daniels talks about having reported on a "plywood hut" being rented out as living quarters and about prison labor, both of which SFR covered this year. (To be fair, the Melodrama has made some pretty cutting remarks about SFR in previous years, so it's not like we're a darling or anything.)
Also notable is the quite intense vitriol spewed forth on social media from Meow Wolf supporters when, amidst a constant stream of glowing press, SFR had the nerve to publish two toothlessly neutral stories about the mega-collective (one of which asked the standard philosophical question, "But is it art?" and one of which said that a festival was fun, if perhaps sparsely attended). So to have Mia Wulf in cahoots with the villain that Calamity fights raised our eyebrows.
To be made fun of or even turned into a villain in a Melo, however, is perhaps the ultimate form of flattery in town. "It just means they're a part of Santa Fe, and they're a part of the community," one of the anonymous writers tells SFR. "Everybody who gets to that point gets reamed in the Melo. And frankly, we're not that mean. I think our jokes are kind-hearted enough while still being revealing enough." And of course, it's not usually SFR's style to use an anonymous source, but the Melo has been uncredited for 99 years—who are we to break tradition?
Particularly chuckle-worthy was when Calamity entered Mia Wulf's glowing den to be entertained by the characters therein.
"You guys really are great!" she exclaims. "Is there anything you can't do?"
A character pipes up from the back: "Take a joke."
After opening weekend, SFR asked Meow Wolf Director of Marketing John Feins if the company had a statement about this year's Melodrama. He said they don't, and that all employees are currently too busy.
7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday Sept. 6-8; 2 pm Sunday Sept. 9. Also 10 pm Saturday Sept. 8. $15-$25. Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E De Vargas St., 988-4262; tickets here.
Editor's note: This show always sells out, so inquire about tickets as soon as possible.