The Ramona Pageant has basis in Helen Hunt Jackson’s book, of course—and the script distills the novel into its major events quite concisely:
Ramona and Alessandro (a) meet, (b) fall in love, (c) run away together, (d) bear a child, and (e) get in trouble with the white people, leading to, (f) Alessandro’s death.
Note how the old ad promises a show that “features incidents” from the novel. One event doesn’t develop into another; instead, each incident emerges with fan-fared separateness: a burst of live trumpet opens and closes each act; the beginning and end of each scene demarcated with the ringing of an “old ranch bell.” The incidents are sewn together with big chunks of Mr. Exposition-style dialogue, plot-establishing lines like, “After all, he is only an Indian, por supuesto,” and “Alessandro went home to see his father a month ago, and Ramona is getting sadder and sadder.”
Wrapping around the skeletal body of plot information, we have the muscle and connective tissue of moving pictures: dance, music, bodies on stage and melodramatic acting.
The last is the easiest to mock, but let’s be fair: it’s hard to turn in good acting in this type of situation. Psychological subtleties and fine shades and delicate comedic turns and quiet agonies—characters that ring with any truth beyond one note, really—those things simply don’t read on a stage this big and exposed, what, with the bugs and traffic noises, the actors’ voices picked up by a couple of standing microphones wrapped in bougainvillea stage center.
The actors are stranded with nothing to swing them from big emotional peak to big emotional peak but a bad script and their own histrionics. The florid exclamatory performances become their own spectacle: “I do not offer my services for wages!” (what, then, does he work for?) “Your Indian Lover is gone!” “As long as I never see a white man again!” (“Word,” said Ben). It didn’t seem like the director probably even tried to get passable performance out of these actors.
This was initially off-putting to me, and I spent the first few scenes grumpily scribbling down notes straight out of Directing 101:
- If the script calls for someone to mention how noisy the house is, you should probably start that noise before he says his line and not after.
- If the clownish “old farmhand” character has a broken leg, then even while being comically chased about by the hot-tempered fat old maid (Pat’s daughter, if you remember), he shouldn’t be able to scramble about so youthfully and handily—plus, he should probably decide just which leg is broken and stick to it.
- If Margarita, the sexy sassy servant daughter of the above maid, is supposed to be a MAID, she probably wouldn’t come out wearing a new dress in every scene.
But the mistake was mine—and my notes mattered exactly nil. This isn’t a play about accurately nailing class differences—it isn’t a play. Margarita wears a different dress in every scene because she’s the sexy taste in the moving picture show—the yummy flirty eye-candy.
Not that story and spectacle aren’t connected: both of the extended musical sequences (of which there are two), get justified within the plot structure. In the middle of Act One, the Senora holds a fiesta at the hacienda, which necessitates a good half hour of dancing; Act Two opens with all the Indians coming together to celebrate the birth of Ramona and Alessandro’s child.
But again, the plot isn’t the story, the spectacle is the story. And looking at it that way, the song and dance montages bear the heaviest dramatic weight: the most time used onstage, the most stage used at one time, the most performers, the longest curatorial notes in the program.
There’s a palpable sense of relief when we get to the first dance number. It’s like we’ve waded through all that darn plot and story, even boiled down as it is, and it’s hard work. Pairs and threes of actors, at sea on a stage the size of a football field, straining their voices and dramatic abilities to hold our attention; audiences, straining to stay interested and pretend sympathy with Ramona and Alessandro.
And then two servants cross the stage with a stuffed deer hanging upside down from a long pole (the men were out hunting, you see), and everyone cries “fiesta!” and dozens of actors pour out onstage, all in colorful costumes;—and now we can just relax and have a good time. The pressure is off. The characters cease being characters and become emcees, entertainers, facilitating the big party.
 The sound emerges from a huge speaker parked front and center in the stage, unsuccessfully swathed in green cloth and covered with a potted plant.