DED! is kind of like a silent movie, it’s kind of a love story, it’s kind of an examination of mortality, it’s kind of a musical, it’s kind of a film, it’s kind of a meta-theatrical play. It’s all and none of those things at once.
The story, an homage to Día de los Muertos, a holiday with its roots in Mexican folklore, follows a young man (Carlos Lopez Estrada) who wakes up one morning to find himself dead and trapped in his apartment with a charming live band. Once he realizes there’s no escaping the apartment, he drinks himself into a stupor and uses his telescope to spy on his girlfriend (Elizabeth Rian), who’s in the land of the living and trying to move on with her life.
The show, which was created by Estrada and fellow puppeteer Cristina Bercovitz, is a well-rehearsed mess. When it’s simple, it’s good, as in the slapstick bits, which go off without a hitch. But when the piece gets caught up in the cacophony of different things it’s trying to be (a puppet show! a short film!), it loses the story and audience.
The inspiration for DED!, playing at the Matrix Theater in Hollywood this week, comes in part from Estrada's experiences in adapting to Los Angeles, where Day of the Dead is becoming a rowdy, garish dress-up bash that rivals Halloween. As Estrada explained to L.A. Weekly about halfway through the show's run, "Being a Mexican who has found a home in L.A., I figured it would be appropriate to present an intimate portrayal of a tradition that is so present in the city I was born in, Mexico City."
So intimate that he spent every October as a child building altars at his home dedicated to close family members and friends who had passed away.
"Every year, we would go through photo albums, gather objects like food, toys and other symbolic memorabilia, and place them all on a table that we would decorate with candles and flowers," Estrada recalls.
Mexico City teachers would assign each classroom "a different deceased individual to do research and presentations on. We are certainly not the only culture to do this, but something that is unique about the Day of the Dead is the distinct aesthetic that the holiday has adopted through the years and the strong association that the celebration has with Mexican culture in general," he explains.
Party on Los Angeles, Estrada says, acknowledging that "there is no question that there is something garish about the images we associate with the Day of the Dead, and that it has perhaps become the less popular and more cool version of Halloween."
Yet growing up in Mexico, he says, you learn to cope with huge ideas through Día de los Muertos: "On a much more abstract [level], we began from a very early age to think about bigger ideas such as mortality and transcendence. Concepts that aren't necessarily easy to communicate to a kid were already a part of our psyche because we had spent days and days hypothesizing about our grandparents and great-grandparents, wondering where they could possibly be and whether they would ever know that we were dedicating a month of our lives to their memory."
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The play, conceived in January by Estrada and Bercovitz, is their attempt to make "an original multimedia theater show about the Day of the Dead that would include as many of our buddies as we could manage to wrangle up and lock inside a theater."
The Matrix Theatre, 7567 Melrose Ave., Hollywood; through Oct. 31. DayOfTheDed.com.