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Theatre Review | 'Mala'

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If you’ve been to the theater lately, you were probably asked to turn off your phone before the performance. The audience for “Mala,” a one-woman show playing at Blackfriars Theater through April 5, gives different instructions.

During the opening remarks, the sole performer acknowledges that some in the audience may be caretakers for children, parents or even dogs, and need to keep their phones on in case of an emergency. If a phone rings, she’ll wait while you make sure your loved ones are OK. There were, fortunately, no emergencies during the Sunday matinee (and hopefully won’t be during the run of this play by Melinda Lopez).

The set design by Allen Wright Shannon is immediately striking. An armchair and side table with books, a bowl of clementines, and a box of tissues sits in the middle of the floor, which is covered with a large spray-painted snowflake so vibrant it appears to glow. Triangle banners made of gossamer with close ups of the crystals of the snowflake arch around the chair. The set foreshadows the March blizzard that makes the play’s setting of Boston, Massachusetts feel a bit closer to home.

In the middle of this icy set is the warmly inviting Mary Mendez Rizzo, who stars as the unnamed stand-in for Lopez in this seemingly autobiographical piece. She wears soft-looking gray pants, red loafers, a black shirt with a light sweater, and round red earrings — an appropriate melding of “business casual” with “these clothes are comfortable because I’m inviting you into my home.”

RON HEERKENS, GOAT FACTORY MEDIA.
  • RON HEERKENS, GOAT FACTORY MEDIA.


The play does feel like a home for Rizzo, whose calm confidence makes carrying an 85-minute solo show look far easier than it is. This isn’t her first time with this role. She performed the piece in summer 2021 with Bristol Valley Theatre in Naples and now, under Patricia Lewis Browne’s thoughtful direction, shows a strong familiarity and comfort with the text.



“Mala” is structured as a series of slice-of-life vignettes, each given a title card projected on the walls in both English and Spanish. It’s a memory play, where the memories come from the playwright’s iPhones notes app, a chaotic and nonlinear mess even in the best of times. This is not the best of times. The structure, overall, mirrors the scattered musings of a playwright steeped in grief.

The lead is only known by the name “Mala,” an insult hurled at her when she tries to show her aging mother how to work the radio without hitting it. “Tu eres mala,” the mother says, and the lead explains: 'mala' means 'bad,' but not just that you did something wrong. It means “you are, in your core, bad.” It’s the first of several moments that show the pain of caretaking for an aging elder. A parent with dementia becomes a stranger as you are becoming a stranger to them.

The details of Mala’s life are gradually revealed. She is the primary caretaker for her only surviving parent, her 92-year-old mother. Both parents immigrated from Cuba. The Spanish that Mala speaks with her Cuban family is sprinkled throughout, with Rizzo delivering it in a way that the meaning is crystal clear without translations.

RON HEERKENS, GOAT FACTORY MEDIA.
  • RON HEERKENS, GOAT FACTORY MEDIA.
Rizzo also takes on other personas, from her Italian friend Gina and her scientist sister to a funeral director. Her use of physicality and accents helps her believably embody these different characters, though she always maintains the most weight as the one telling the story.

At its best, Lopez’s writing is evocative and smart, incorporating interesting facts about mouse blood and Inuit culture. At times, it breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge the act of storytelling, which is not as engaging as it wants to be.

When Mala says that, as a dramatist, she knows action must have consequences, it only draws attention to the fact that there is very little action in the play. She is “just trying to be ordinary” and she succeeds, to the detriment of narrative intrigue. There’s no narrative intrigue to an elder dying, after all; you know how it will end (death), it’s just a matter of when. This is a play about the grief that fills those days leading up to the inevitable.

Despite introducing a sad flashback as the climax, the show doesn’t follow traditional story structure or build to anything. It resists easy, feel-good platitudes about death — as Mala says, “the dying aren’t wise or generous ... I won’t tell you there’s a lesson.” The play starts as an emotional roller coaster, but settles into something slow, serious and somber; as still as the chill after a blizzard.

"Mala" runs at Blackfriars Theatre through April 5. More details and tickets here.

Katherine Varga is a contributing writer to CITY.

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