On the barren streets (and an empty stage) teenagers play at ‘waging war’ on one another, chasing and slapping one another in fun. They’re barely teenagers, by the end of Bucket List our protagonist Milagros (Vicky Araico Casas) is no older than fourteen or fifteen. Here are children at their most child-like, lost in a game and ignorant of how dangerous their surroundings are. Even when they stumble across a severed head, the gang laugh as well as scream. The ensemble cast does an excellent job of depicting how quickly the teens must grow up in an increasingly hostile Mexico. It’s not just factory work and gruelling commutes they’re forced to face, but abuse and murder.
Theatre Ad Infinitum have mastered the art of a swift change in tone. There are several points in the play where we see Milagros cut short in a moment of enjoyment to face the horrors of the corrupt system she is embroiled in. Suddenly orphaned as a result of a protest rally, Milagros finds herself carrying her mother’s scorn toward the corrupt parties behind a seemingly benevolent trade agreement. The action and narrative forms itself around a revenge plot, but instead of the grandeur and downfall that comes with stereotypically high status characters in revenge tragedies, Milagros ascends the ranks not through righting any usurpation but with sheer dumb luck. Her involvement in the street life of the Mexican teenagers blurs the lines of reality and make-believe when she is play fighting in one sequence and planning multiple murders in the next. To her, homicide in child’s play.
The cast work like a finely tuned machine, all perfectly in sync during choreographed routines of factory work and Milagros’ flashbacks. The level of skill at play here is remarkable, and not once does this choreography feel out of place. Rather, people in Milagros’ life are cut down over and over, a repetitive cycle as inevitable as it is unstoppable. Despite her actions, we still see her mother and cousin beaten: it’s clear Milagros is fighting for causes which are already spent, including her own.
As a devised performance, the piece has plenty of styles which whilst diverse do appear a little at odds on reflection. The pace is slick, setting up goals and twists at exactly the right places for the swell of emotion to really hit home. However, there are plenty of moments where it all seems a bit too easy for our protagonist to recognise her goals. Equipped with the Herculean task of dispatching officials up the foodchain to the presidents of Mexico and the US, the play takes on a futile tone which is dispelled somewhat by the introduction of an international chess championship. Whilst it’s a nice touch and does carry credibility within the story’s universe, having such a specific prize in the championship just seems that bit too convenient. It adds a level that’s almost more at home in a dark comedy, and yet the themes explored in the play are grave enough to be at odds with assuming a comic tone overall. The more serious themes are handled incredibly delicately, yet also display the brutality which disrupts ordinary lives.
Orian Michaeli gives a heartbreaking performance as Milagros’ cousin who encounters the wrong cop, her largely silent turn speaking volumes for Milagros’ motivation. The intimacies shared between Michaeli and Casas seem so genuine that it’s impossible not to feel chilled when we see them thrown into their darkest hour.
Deborah Pugh is another outstanding performer, both as Milagros’ mother and American charity worker Jenny. Introduced with a soft swing accompaniment, Jenny represents the opportunity that America can bring. America’s role in the production is potent and the country manifests itself in clever costuming. Under their factory uniforms, all of the performers wear T-shirts emblazoned with Americana and cartoon motifs: lovehearts, Disney princesses, caped crusaders. It’s a nice touch to present Milagros in a sparkly Batgirl tee, given her sense of vigilante justice. It’s also a symbol of cheap labour: behind the smiling Sleeping Beauties and Cinderellas are children working to the bone for 39 cents an hour. The screen separating Milagros from the line of American and Mexican politicians (symbolised by coats on hangers) is a form of border control, a smokescreen to hide the injustices at play in these Mexican towns.
The visuals of Bucket List are as striking as its emotional performances are stirring and make it possible to overlook the script’s slight tendency for convenience. Even when the plot seems a little too weighted in Milagros’ favour, it’s hard not to get lost in the moment. Living in such a bleak world, it seems only fair we overlook one chess game.
Bucket List plays at Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh on 3rd -29th August 2016. Click here for more information.