"La Lucha" is an immersive theater experience created by David Israel Reynoso through a partnership between La Jolla Playhouse and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD Downtown). This world premiere event draws inspiration from Lucha Libre and its masked Mexican wrestlers.
Reynoso grew up in Guadalajara where he saw El Santo, the famed Mexican wrestler, on the big screen.
"There was something in which the idea that there was both someone who in person did some extraordinary things in a luchador ring, and yet somehow also were a superhero," Reynoso said. "So there was this element to this persona that is both accessible but then also superhuman."
But what did El Santo do after he was done fighting Martians, zombies and mummies?
"I was really struck by a series of photographs of luchadores who, outside of the ring, were in their more domestic spaces but still wearing their masks," Reynoso recalled. "And it made me consider how there are moments in life that are maybe more private, that get less fanfare, but require just as much courage, and in some ways are quite noteworthy despite the fact that they're not seen by thousands of spectators, there's no roaring crowd to cheer you on."
All of that informs Reynoso’s new show "La Lucha." This world premiere is part of La Jolla Playhouse’s extended Without Walls or WOW program. Reynoso is a veteran of WOW’s site-specific and innovative theater approach. Previously, he created "Waking La Llorona" (2017 WOW Festival), "Las Quinceañeras" (2019 WOW Festival), and "The Optika Piñata" (2021 Pop-Up WOW).
"All of them had this idea of, 'What is it to take an event that's very culturally specific, but what are themes in it that are universal to the human experience?'" Reynoso asked.
Through his company Optika Moderna, he invites audiences to peer through the eyes of another, in order to see things from a different perspective or a new lens. Every Optika Moderna piece begins in a mysterious optician's office.
"The idea is that somehow these opticians in Optika Moderna travel and set up shop in different locations around the world," Reynoso explained. "You, as an audience member, are invited in. You are met with an optician. Your vision is assessed and then you are outfitted with some optical gear, which you then put over your face to create a perspective that feels rather cinematic."
It’s reminiscent of entering a virtual reality game and then choosing a character to be or to follow.
"So your journey begins at a series of portals into this dimension," Reynoso added. "There are moments within your experience in which you then might get separated from your group. You will be invited through secret doorways, and then even there are moments where it's just one audience member gets a chance to see something that the rest of the group does not. This space is very purposefully designed in a way that you are turning corners at every moment. You are disoriented in a way that I think it feels playful."
Playfulness is key for Sol De La Rosa. He helps activate these spaces by choreographing the movements of actors who communicate non-verbally.
"I think kids play to make sense of the world, to create environments, to imagine and to create conflicts, then resolve them," De La Rosa said. "And through playing, we're actually configuring larger human conditions that we can all maybe relate to."
Actress Lorena Santana described the experience of engaging with the audience as "magical, because everybody brings something of their own life experience to this show. When you get to see their reactions and how they feel, you're sharing that with them. The show is not scripted in the sense that there are words or language per se. We use movement to tell the story. So all of it is told through movement and sound."
That's very rewarding for De La Rosa.
"I love this idea that so much of what we say is actually nonverbal," De La Rosa said. "So the reward is seeing actors tune into the small details, to how they shift their head, how they use eye contact, how they reach, and allow, I like to say, the ancient wisdom of our bodies to come through. Noticing what happens when you curve inward or where you expose your sternum. How one can present strength or desire or pain."
De La Rosa sees the luchadores as masked warriors.
"The mask is so full of symbolic representation," De La Rosa said. "There's almost this external presentation of internal dialogue that use the aspect of mask wearing to actually not hide but expose their internal dialogues and their fears, their traditions."
And maybe even their influence on ideas of Mexican masculinity.
Santana sees Lucha Libre as a big part of Mexican culture in part because it has a powerful element of storytelling.
"In that if a luchador loses their mask or their mask is taken off, there's a very powerful thing that happens that involves shame and embarrassment," Santata said. "So, going along those lines, we've taken the story of the luchadores and used the idea of what it's like to potentially take a part of yourself off or some type of self-image that you have of yourself, or an idea of who you are. And sometimes you could be ostracized for that or things could get difficult. So we are toying with this incredible theme of mask wearing."
Masks can also offer the protection of providing a second face that obscures your true one.
"It made me consider how we in life have more public versions of ourselves and more private versions," Reynoso said. "This idea of hiding your identity in some ways and being very protective about it. And there's great efforts to then shame and ridicule those who are ultimately defeated and are failures within lucha libre. And so I think there's something in which we as humans, regardless of whether or not we are in the ring, struggle with the fear of failure, of being defeated."
But can there be victory in defeat? Is there a value to the struggle? Each visitor will have a different answer because no two people will experience the same thing on any given night. Which is why the show leads you to a cantina at the end where strangers can turn an individual experience into a communal one and maybe openly wrestle with complicated questions of identity.
"La Lucha" runs through June 4 at MCASD Downtown at 1100 Kettner Blvd next to the train depot.