That's what playwright Dawn Costello Sellers has crafted here with beautiful direction from Eva Tessler, showing us that when man meddles with nature, not only does it create a complicated mess and tragedy, but it also compromises our own survival, both physically and spiritually.
The true tale took place in 2009, when a biologist with the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project set a snare trap in the Atascosa Mountains west of Nogales and north of the border in hopes of trapping a male jaguar, using female jaguar feces to attract him. The elusive jaguar, an animal not seen in the area since the mid-'90s, had been photographed and with that egos and politics went to work and the bureaucracy meant to protect Macho B, failed—failed big time.
The female feces worked, Macho B was caught in the snare—the animal panicked and severely injured himself unable to break free. Biologists found him, drugged him with Telazol and put a radio collar on him. The jaguar, hypothermic and injured, died days later. It took investigations from several agencies and the guilty conscious of one of the biologists involved, to get an idea of what really happened—the careless crusade to tag this jaguar for glory.
In "Jaguar!," the same story is told, but through the eyes of Moon (Avis Judd), who protects Macho B (Christopher Johnson) and loves him with all her heart. There's also a little girl, Maya (Milta Ortiz), who happens to love nature, but just a little too much. She's us—the human who explores, catches and collects—sometimes holding in her hands just a little too tightly. Moon lectures Maya, who eventually dreams of finding jaguar. We watch Maya grow up to become a biologist, hired to work with the biologist and his assistant on the hunt for Macho B (played by Brian Taraz and Tenoch Gomez, respectively).
Together this cast deftly tells the story of Macho B as if telling us the same folktale that's been told over and over again over the centuries about jaguar—how much humankind has loved and worshiped him, and his mystery and power. Moon helps with this, too: When she wears her mask, she is the storyteller and without the mask, she is our conscious that deep down feels pained with every wrong, reminding us, or really Maya, to be better, and reminding her precious jaguar to be careful. After all, "people aren't always the brightest."
In a conversation between Moon and Maya is the obvious, such foolish people we are: "I can't see in the desert without you," Maya tells Moon. "You can't see in the desert with me," Moon answers.
By the end of the play, the lessons are clear and Maya is transformed—emotionally and physically—just like we should be or at least should have been once we heard the full true tale of Macho B, sacrificed for needless scientific glory and a broken system.
I have to say that watching Judd as Moon, with Oritz playing Maya and Johnson as Macho B, is delightful. They are perfect in their roles. Joining them are three coati played by Yvonne Montoya, Sherry Mulholland and Anjelina Mendibles, who dance and play with jaguar—mischief makers who share the desert with Macho B, and live in fear and love of him. Nannette Robinson also does beautiful aerial work as Moon hanging sky, the evening stars as her backdrop.
The matinee I caught was a school-day production, the audience a large group of middle school students from Palo Verde Middle School, who seemed to enjoy the production and had great questions for the cast and crew at the end of the show. But what's unique about this play, is this storytelling method Seller's uses, and I could see a younger set of kids easily letting go and entering Maya's world, a world they love and know that comes with their own desires to catch butterflies and poke at lizards, all with curiosity and sometimes love. At the end, they'd understand the injustice deftly.
Then there's us who know better at this point. Have we completely given up on being transformed? Are we so jaded now that nature has no place in our hearts? "Jaguar!" is a mirror for us, a folktale that needs to become part of our consciousness in order for us to finally do what's right: Protect what we have left and allow the transformation of a new world to take place.
The Latina Dance Theater Project has given Tucson a gift, a beautifully crafted play about what we did to Macho B that left us with profound lessons. Keeping Macho B's memory alive, well, maybe that's the only way we'll finally learn.
This is the show's closing weekend, tonight and tomorrow, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the 738 N. 5th Ave. theater. For more info, go to jaguarplay.com.