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Luchadora! 

When: Sundays, 2 & 8 p.m., Saturdays, 2 & 6 p.m. and Fridays, 8 p.m. Continues through June 16 2018
Price: $15-$35

Anna Skidis Vargas is a familiar sight on St. Louis stages, as is her brilliant, singular singing voice. She's starred in musicals all over town, from classics like Godspell to the low-rent thrills of Evil Dead the Musical, and worked behind the scenes as a director as well, most often for Theatre Nuevo. She's as gifted an actor as she is a vocalist, which adds depth to every role she assays.

Her current passion is lucha libre, the Mexican style of professional wrestling that often features fabulously masked luchadores performing high-flying acrobatic maneuvers and technical holds. But Skidis Vargas is not planning a career change; she's in the midst of directing Luchadora!, Alvaro Saar Rios' award-winning play about a family of luchadores.

In fact, although she's engrossed in the subject matter, she wouldn't call herself a fan of lucha libre.

"No, it would generally not be my bag — but I have a healthy respect for it," she promises. "I would support anybody who would want to do it. My dad got us into martial arts as a kid, and that was something we did as a family, so I understand it."

The play is a family-friendly story inspired by the legend of Mulan, the Chinese girl who disguised herself as a man to fight a war in her father's stead. Luchadora! centers on a grandmother and granddaughter in a similar situation. Nana Lupita wanted to become a luchadore when she was a young girl, but the ring wasn't an option for women in the 1960s. Still, with the right costume and a mask, Lupita could maybe pass for a man and fulfill her dreams of becoming a famous luchadore. She recounts the story of her adventures to her granddaughter Vanessa, who shares similarly outsized dreams.

The show is a joint production of Theatre Nuevo and Mustard Seed Theatre, but how that came about is a bit of a mystery, even to the director.

At Mustard Seed's production of Yasmina's Necklace, Skidis Vargas says she was sitting in the lobby and ended up catching up with Mustard Seed artistic director Deanna Jent. "She asked about Theatre Nuevo and how we're doing," she recalls. "In the words of Hamilton, we're still young, hungry and scrappy. We have a small budget. I told her I had a play that I would love to do, but no place to do it. She suggested we talk more about it, and here we are."

And by that, she means jointly mounting a play that has quite a bit of wrestling in it.

"There is a decent amount," agrees Skids Vargas. "We've got a big final fight, that's there. There are exhibition fights, training for fights, characters watching it on TV. We have two very capable gentleman helping us with fights. Our fight choreographer is Mark Kelly and Ryan Lawson Maeske is our fight captain. He also plays several wrestlers, so he gets a workout."

For Mexicans, lucha libre is more than just fighting: It's a cultural tradition that permeates society in a way America's own wrestling promotions can't. There is an honor code, and the masks themselves continue a legacy that began with the ritual masks of the Aztecs. It's this other element of Luchadora! that most deeply resonates with Skidis Vargas.

"One of the things that's near and dear to my heart about the play is that it shows how rich Mexican culture is," she says. "Beyond the masks and the sport, Rios touches on migrant works, war, the migrant experience, identity and feminism. It's feminism for young Chicana girls. We're not always portrayed well on TV, but this depicts our culture in such a beautiful way."

Theatre Nuevo and Mustard Seed Theatre present Luchadora! at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 6 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 8 p.m. Sunday (June 1 to 16) at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre (6800 Wydown Boulevard; www.mustardseedtheatre.com), with a final 2 p.m. performance on Sunday, June 17. Tickets are $15 to $35.

— Paul Friswold

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