When the mesmerizing Elena Abril Fiero casts her spell it is nearly impossible to escape entanglement, obsession, something akin to rapture. This near-religious experience is perfectly realized by the cast and artistic crew presenting Mary Fengar Gail’s The Judas Tree , a journey into madness. Gail’s world, in which the beautiful and the macabre live side by side, is stunningly rendered with superb acting, a grim chorus, and subtle lighting effects. It is easy to imagine oneself in Fiero’s sanctuary and to believe in the supreme power of myths, but it is equally easy to focus on the shifts in tone and to emerge from the trance. When her sacrificial practices are removed from the garden haven and scrutinized in a California courtroom, the abominable nature of her crimes is clear, her culpability, less so. Cloaked thickly in metaphor, the story of Dorothea Puente, a California serial killer who murdered nine elderly boarders in her home and buried them in her yard, becomes a mystical tale about the self-proclaimed priestess, Elena Fiero, who sacrifices victims to the Madreguera, a sort of earth goddess. The story is bewitching, but like much art that draws from “true” crime as its inspiration, it often comes dangerously close to fetishizing horror, and worshipping playfully at the cult of the serial killer.
The murders committed by Puente bear scant resemblance to the dramatized sacrifices executed by Fiero. There was nothing romantic about her actions—she killed and then forged her victims’ social security checks to live in luxury—and, unceremoniously, she sits in prison to this day.
Where Puente was obvious and cold, Fiero is complicated and fiery with passion. Gail has imbued the character with the sort of mad, fascinating messianic dreams and visions that bring allusions to Christ, Mayan ritual, and mother goddesses. As Fiero, Roseanne Medina is a vision: absolutely beautiful, she embodies the cunning and the fierceness of the character, while still making her alluring. With her charm and looks, Elena entraps lost souls with the intent of sacrificing them to the Madreguera. These sacrifices yield a heavenly garden of vibrant color. Notably, the set does not literally feature a garden; the flowers are figuratively represented by light that spreads across the floor in a pattern reminiscent of stained glass.
There are many moments in the show where rapturous devotion is faithfully and sympathetically created. It is impressive that Lorca Peress, as director, resists the urge to judge her characters, something that Gail believes society is too quick to do. That burden is placed on the audience, toward which the actors direct their testimony throughout Fiero’s trial. Gail uses the frame of a courtroom drama to launch into her more romantic, sensual story, told through the use of flashbacks and monologues. Representing the most bewitched character, Arturo Salvia, a former detective, performs these monologues in his tortured, transformed state: a tree. Specifically, he has changed into a Judas tree, signifying his betrayal of his former lover, Fiero.
The play’s structure and severe character turns require deft transitioning from the actors and the director. With rare exception, these changes occur gracefully. As Salvia, John Haggerty shifts wonderfully from the stereotypically skeptical detective to a breathlessly emotional tree. His physical morphing and the show’s choreography (by Jennifer Chin) bring to vivid life Gail’s poetic impulses. In an impressive sequence, Silva is digging up the garden, afraid that his worst fears will be realized. To demonstrate the task and its haunting nature, the Chorus Corpus Flora (five talented singers and dancers) acts as the earth being parted (a visual that corresponds with the themes of the play).
While the garden scenes are among the production’s finest moments, it is in the poetic mode that the play loses its footing. Some lines are striking in their spare, raw evocation of natural splendor, with the ability to find exceptional parallels between the world of plants and the world of men. Other times, these connections seem forced, the metaphors over-extended, the puns silly (e.g. “barking up the wrong tree” and “treedom”).
At times this production is alluring portrait of fanaticism, but its shortcomings highlight the impossibility of qualifying insanity, or trying to develop a metaphor to control it. While the show leaves it to the audience to judge, there is no way to understand a character such as Fiero, and it is left with a hauntingly empty feeling about her fate and a bleak sense of the world she leaves behind. Gail’s poetic and occasionally obsessive exploration of this character is compelling, but the perverse nature of this investigation and its presentation are left unexplored.