The Santa Fe Playhouse was mostly empty during a recent lunch hour, save for three local troublemakers with brown paper shopping bags over their heads.
As the writers of the 2019 Santa Fe Fiesta Melodrama, they insisted they had to remain anonymous. The trio was able to see through hastily cut eye-holes, but their voices were muffled. It all gave the meeting in the hushed adobe building on De Vargas Street the slightly surreal, inadvertently comic quality of a low-budget horror film.
Each year, a handpicked group of volunteers — possibly your neighbor, a grade-school teacher, a doctor, or your favorite bartender — put pen to paper to skewer the City Different in the manner of traditional Old West stage comedy that pits good against evil. Scheduled around the time of the burning of Zozobra and the Santa Fe Fiesta, the Fiesta Melodrama parodies political scandals and stories that made headlines during the previous year. In the capital city and political hub of New Mexico, there is never a shortage of topics to draw from, and because Santa Fe is so small and close-knit, it’s not unusual to see people you know (or perhaps even yourself) represented onstage. This year’s production — “the second annual 99th annual” — opens Thursday, Aug. 22.
But it is not the 99th iteration of the melodrama, as many call it.
“Last year, we said it was the 99th annual Fiesta Melodrama because we thought the melodrama started when the playhouse opened in 1919,” explained Vaughn Irving, one of the Melodrama directors and the cutter of eye holes. “But the first one was actually in 1922. So we’re doing the second, third, and fourth annual until we get to the actual 100th annual.”
If you have an issue with this logic, you have only Santa Fe to blame. Irving, 35, grew up here, as did his co-director, Andrew Primm, 47. Primm’s Fiesta Melodrama roots are exceptionally deep. “My aunt gave me an old publication from, like, 1951 that has pictures of my great-aunt and great-uncle. He’s in the melodrama wearing a bowler hat, and she’s sewing a dress,” he said.
The three writers currently in the theater were only a representative sample of a greater whole, Primm said. “We start with 100 writers, narrow it down to about 30, and then we mud-wrestle to see who gets to write dialogue.” He did not reveal whether the writers in attendance had triumphed in said wrestling match, nor where the match took place. He did say that one of the most important things to know is that their lampooning is never malicious.
“If you see yourself onstage and you want to get mad about it, just remember that it means you’ve arrived.”
As usual, this year’s official title is a list of titles: Follow the Plothole Filled Road, or Little Outhouse on the Prairie, or A Gaggle of Golden McGuffins Gets Gotten, or Location, Location, Location: The Other L.A. Story, or a Wack, a Wizard, and the Witch That Gets Whacked. The major plotlines concern the gubernatorial election — dubbed the “blue-corn wave” — that toppled the Wicked Witch of the Southwest, who had ruled Santa Fe for eight long years, as well as the housing crisis. The protagonist is a bright-eyed young lady named Jamie Dorothy who has been kicked out of her casita.
“If there is a bingo card for this year’s melodrama, I think the center square is probably casita jokes,” said Chip, the writer in the blue chinos. (All names have been changed to protect the satirists.)
Although they were hesitant to give away much information before opening night, Pasatiempo was able to learn that the 14-member cast ranges in age from 12 to 84. The writers penned musical parodies to sprinkle between the dialogue, including a Nirvana cover, show tunes, and at least one Disney number related to the recently released live-action version of Aladdin. This year’s Snidely Whiplash-style villain, Sly N. Test, is a nuclear waste salesman from L.A. The time-period in which the melodrama is set is both 100 years ago and in 2019. The writers claim that there is a special sort of fun to be had in playing with anachronisms.
“In the stage directions, it says ‘a 1920s-style vape pen,’ whatever that is,” said the woman in the capris, who seemed like her name could be Lucy, leaning back in her chair and crossing one leg over the other.
Watching a melodrama isn’t a typical theater experience. Viewers are encouraged to cheer for the heroine, boo the villain, and express shock, fear, glee, and other emotions as the actors engage in slapstick (often) and silly drama (always). But take note: Enthusiastically engaging in the melodrama experience and flat-out heckling are not the same thing.
“You shouldn’t be singling yourself out or trying to add your own punchline to every joke,” said the writer wearing a white tank top, baggy shorts, and a boutique-style paper bag on his head. We’ll call him Fred.
Lucy added, “The audience is a character, but the audience is a collective.”
While the Fiesta Melodrama is meant to be lighthearted with just a bit of bite, the directors and the writers understand the responsibility that comes with putting on this annual autumn celebration. It’s the most consistently well-attended production at the Playhouse, and it’s the only local theater some people see each year. Irving estimated that at least five generations have come to see the melodrama.
“The Playhouse and the Fiesta Melodrama have pretty much grown up together. Their histories are intertwined. We’re equal opportunity offenders, so we can all come together as a community,” Primm said.
The tradition is a celebration of Santa Fe, Fred said, but it’s also acknowledging that it’s imperfect and finding humor in it — which can sometimes ruffle a few feathers.
“Some people take these things too serious. People might take it the wrong way, but we do it out of love. We don’t get paid. We don’t get notoriety. We do it because we love our city.” ◀
▼ 2019 Fiesta Melodrama
▼ Opens 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22; continues 7:30 p.m. Thursdays - Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 7; no performance Aug. 30
▼ Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E. De Vargas St., 505-988-4262
▼ Tickets: $25, $15 opening night; $30 Aug. 24 reception and fundraiser; santafeplayhouse.org