Improv comedy meets wrestling in Mexican 'Impro Lucha'

by Oscar Avila

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

22 May 2008

Lucha Libre characters Lady Veneno (Lady Venom) (real name: Yuriria del Valle) and her partner Lord Perrón (Big Dog) (real name: Fabian Garza) sing during a improvisation contest in Mexico City, Mexico, May 2, 2008. (Sarah Meghan Lee/Chicago Tribune/MCT) 

MEXICO CITY - A band of masked musicians is channeling heavy metal band Black Sabbath as a shirtless man enters the arena with his face painted like Satan. Raging beside him is a woman in fiery red hair, wearing a miniskirt and a scowl.

The fist-pumping couple enters the wrestling ring to do battle with what appears to be an effete butler in a black vest and bow tie. His partner is a woman dressed as a maid who rubs her hands in anticipation of a brawl.

Nope, nothing unusual here.

As over-the-top as this scene sounds, it is standard fare in the iconic Mexican art of “lucha libre” wrestling, where the battle between good and evil is taken to outlandish extremes.

But this match takes a turn when the bell rings and the devilish duo known as the “Highest of the Low” start acting a scene set in a department store. This isn’t wrestling but the improvisational comedy that gained fame at Chicago’s Second City and other venues.

The cheering and jeering crowd will decide the winner of the match by who is funnier. For the finale, the routines segue back into the slams of a traditional lucha libre match.

The participants - improv actors, first and foremost - were looking to put a Mexican stamp on their craft when they hit upon the idea of tapping into lucha libre.

Though “Impro Lucha” has packed theaters in Mexico City since it premiered in 2006, its creators still strain to meld the two worlds. Their hope is to inspire the blue-collar wrestling fan to sample the theater and the more refined arts lover to visit a sweaty wrestling arena.

The audience comes in “with the intention of having fun from the moment they buy their ticket,” said Fernando Bonilla, who plays “Goldtooth,” the referee. “That is exactly what makes it comparable to lucha libre. The fan comes in expecting to live a sort of adventure.”

Since making its mark in the 1930s, lucha libre (literally, “free fight”) has resonated in Mexico’s working-class neighborhoods. The sport’s popularity has ebbed and flowed, but at its peak decades ago, it spawned a genre of action/horror flicks in which wrestlers such as “El Santo” (“The Saint”) did battle with zombies and mummies.

At first, the Impro Lucha actors were going to merely re-enact wrestling. But they soon enlisted a live band and made improv the centerpiece.

But the co-ed troupe faced a metaphysical sort of quandary: How do you send up a genre that is by its very nature a parody?

In the process of designing their costumes and characters, it meant taking the black-and-white archetypes to the extreme - “accentuating the stereotypes,” as one actor put it.

For instance, the butler and the maid are called the Key Masters (a play off the Spanish word “llave,” which means both “key” and “wrestling move”). After their raucous entrance, the band stops on a dime and goes into a waltz as the actors daintily dance together.

On the flip side, another duo plumbs the depths of 21st Century evil to create Taliban Immolation. Leaving political correctness behind, “King Tabouli” enters in a rage and then breaks into a belly dance as the band plays vaguely Middle Eastern music.

“The American, British and Spanish leagues have banned them - for obvious reasons,” the announcer says by way of introduction.

The heart of the performances are traditional improv challenges, aided by spectators who suggest plot lines by writing them on slips of paper. The referee counts out the losing team by slapping the mat and saying “1-2-3, you’re out!”

The improv was easy enough, but the actors wanted to be credible in their wrestling scenes as well. That meant enlisting a pro wrestler known as “El Terror Latino.”

“El Terror began teaching us the way he learned, the rough way,” said Juan Carlos Medellin, who plays the avenging “Arms of God,” dressed all in white. “It’s funny because we all come from acting schools that had methodical styles of learning. We had a lot of resistance to jump in. We wanted to go step by step.

“The wrestlers were used to doing things like this,” he said, snapping his fingers. “As one of them told us, `If you think too much, you won’t dare do it.’”

A few months later, the actors were jumping off the top rope, slamming their co-stars to the canvas and proudly wearing their bruises and scrapes of training.

“Whoever tries lucha libre,” director Jose Luis Saldana said, “is going to take a little memory of it in their bodies.”

This eclectic mixture has been a cult hit in Mexico City, selling out nearly every show at the Shakespeare Forum in the trendy Condesa neighborhood. The third season begins in August, and the group is already searching for bigger quarters.

The Impro Lucha is just the latest example of how this classic Chicago art form has become universal and taken on each country’s own character, said Charna Halpern, co-founder of the iO comedy group in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. After improv took root in the 1950s, Chris Farley, Mike Myers and other aspiring stars honed their improv craft in Chicago.

“I just got an e-mail from Peru. I got a call from somewhere in Brazil. I went to Cyprus to get the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to do improv together,” she said. “Everybody knows (Chicago) is the home, this is Mecca.”

The Impro Lucha has also benefited from the spread of lucha libre wrestling into wider popular culture, both in Mexico and in other countries, said Nacho Vargas, an artist who writes about the sport on his Vive Lucha Libre Web site.

The real-life masked wrestlers now appear on reality TV shows, soap operas and at movie premieres in Mexico. Hollywood built an entire movie, “Nacho Libre,” on the comic gold of Jack Black in a skin-tight lucha costume.

And younger Mexicans are relishing the campiness of the spectacle, with hipsters wearing wrestling T-shirts (in ironic fashion, of course) for a night on the town.

“Before, if you said you were a fan, it was viewed badly. Now it’s considered a form of alternative expression, a rediscovered symbol of Mexico,” said Vargas, whose artwork includes rosaries that combine wrestlers and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

If it’s possible for this zany cast of characters to have a serious purpose, it is to create a bridge between the theater and wrestling communities. That means breaking down class barriers in Mexico, never an easy proposition, said Saldana, the director.

Impro Lucha tried to branch out this month when they performed at a massive lucha libre fan convention. Instead, the actors ended up playing to sparse crowds. They were even heckled by a few hard-core wrestling fans.

Vargas said he has gone to Impro Lucha with pro wrestlers who wound up cool to the show because they thought the actors were mocking them. “They didn’t get it,” he said.

That assessment couldn’t be further from the truth, said MariCarmen Nunez, a producer who also plays “Mrs. Stilson,” the maid who wields a menacing feather duster.

“Our concept is born from our admiration for these people, their training, their control of a scene, their control of the audience,” she said. “We aren’t trying to parody them but to do our jobs as well as they do.”

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