It's unlikely that white, English-speaking audience members will catch all of the references in the Miracle Theatre's production of Luis Valdez's provocatively dense The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, but that's no reason not to try. Within one family of first- and second-generation Mexican Americans, a heady range of experience is condensed—a timeline of assimilation and resistance, poverty and ambition.
A father drinks from his flask, and tells war stories of his years in Pancho Villa's revolutionary gang; a son returns home from the war speaking unaccented English, newly in thrall to the promises of the American dream; a sister yearns for a life of her own. And all the while, the titular head, played with glee by Vicente Guzmán-Orozco, perches on a table—groaning, gnashing his teeth, belting "La Cucaracha"; a mustachioed, tortilla-eating Mexican stereotype who can be tucked out of sight but refuses to disappear completely. It's a soap opera; it's a farce; it's a madcap, high-stakes puzzle whose pieces describe the concerns of the Chicano movement of the 1960s.
When the thuggish Mingo (Danny Moreno) returns triumphantly from the service, he's determined to elevate his family from their squalid barrio existence by relying on the honest American virtues of hard work and tax fraud. He hires friends of his brother Joaquin (Albert Alcazar) to work in the fields and then cheats them out of their wages; he buys a fancy new sports car and takes pains to eliminate all traces of his Mexican roots. Basically, he's kind of a jerk. Unfortunately, Moreno never forgets he's acting, and neither does the audience—he is the weak spot in an otherwise fine ensemble. Far better are the supporting characters—Erubiel Valladares Carranza is particularly understated and natural, while Gary Corbin's cameo as a police officer makes the humor in this 45-year-old play seem fresh.
Chicano identity, whitewashing, machismo, and the dream of a revolutionary future—this is a script of ideas and ideals, firmly located in the complicated give-and-take of the everyday, and the Miracle's fine production is lively and accessible.