The woman in clinician’s clothes gently straps a viewing device onto my head, repeatedly checking the straps and clips that hold it into place. Headphones block out the sounds of milling patrons outside the little tent we sit in as the steady thump of dance music begins to thrum louder from within their soft padding. The headpiece acts as a set of blinders, forcing my gaze only forward. The Clinician peers into my eyes, her face close to mine now, the thump building as she dances her fingers in front of my view. I can only see in front of me, and then, suddenly, my viewpoint is obscured – I only see the dim lights of the room as my vision is obscured by the flick of a switch on my headset. She takes my hands and guides me out of my seat and into a hazy memory, flicking my vision back into focus before she leaves. I lift my wrist up to my face briefly – she’d strapped something around it, a name tag – Beatriz. It’s the 1990s, I am about to be fifteen years old, a Quinceañera, and everything is about to change.

Las Quinceañeras | Optika ModernaOptika Moderna, created by renowned costume designer David Israel Reynoso, arrived onto the immersive scene in 2017 with Waking La Llorona, the stunning retelling of the eponymous Mexican folktale. Now, once again mounting their production at San Diego’s WOW Festival, Optika returns with Las Quinceañeras, a powerful forty-minute exploration of Latino and Mexican tradition that places two audience members on parallel storylines as Beatriz and Mari Cruz, two young girls on the brink of womanhood who are destined for a collision.

Las Quinceañeras | Optika ModernaLas Quinceañeras employs the same blinders/VR-headset-style presentation as La Llorona before it, moving participants from scene to scene, their view strictly limited to the space in front of them, and those spaces, gorgeously decorated and filled with details from a talented team of production stage artists, are breathtaking. It’s an extraordinary and expertly executed idea; transitions between scenes feel seamless as guests’ viewpoints are alternately obscured as they are moved into position. In the particular case of Las Quinceañeras, the blurry haze effect used to obfuscate my vision between these moments makes every new interaction feel as if I’m waking from a dream.

Las Quinceañeras | Optika ModernaAnd that’s precisely what Las Quinceañeras is, in a way – a dream. The dream of two young women waking into their adult lives, longing for acceptance and grieving the death of their childhoods. Reynoso and co-director Careena Melia have taken something so sacred, so rooted in tradition, and treated it with such a tender grace that it’s instantly accessible to any audience. This is not my personal experience, it’s Beatriz and Mari Cruz’s, but at the same time it is mine. It feels like my own life playing out before me, I cannot help but feel trapped within the head of my assigned character, watching from within her mind.   

Las Quinceañeras | Optika ModernaAs the performance draws to a close, actors Tiffany Martinez-Delgado and Margaret Moreno emerge as Beatriz and Mari-Cruz, arms extended like wings as they move together, our mirrored selves dancing a final goodbye. Their performance is mesmerizing, almost spiritual. Similarly, a limousine scene on the Mari Cruz track of the experience propels the actor in slow motion, a deliberate and aching series of motions telegraphing her fate with a brutal delicacy. These scenes in particular highlight the triumphant work of movement director Kelly Bartnik; through her Herculean efforts, Las Quinceañeras lives and breathes around me, spooling out a tale of love, loss, and coming-of-age that suffuses my senses and shakes my heart.

Las Quinceañeras | Optika ModernaDays later, my mind still returns to Beatriz’s memories, swirling around in my head like a slow waltz on the final night of my own girlhood. I think about the choices she made, and those I know she wished she had, this incredible mix of joy and sorrow strewn about her. I think about that beautiful, marvelous dress, her tears staining the fabric. I think about what she may have become, in a different time, a different place. I think about the night it all changed for her, and how deftly Optika Moderna has sown it to me. In Optika’s world, and in the brilliant mind of David Israel Reynoso, headset aside, there are no blinders. The world is as young and full of hope as Beatriz and Mari Cruz, standing on the precipice of an uncertain future – it’s only a matter of opening your eyes to jump.

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Immersive Theater Optika Moderna Review